07 Jun 2010
La Damnation de Faust in Modern Guise at Lyric Opera of Chicago
During its recently concluded season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented two musical pieces based on the theme of “Faust.”
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?
During its recently concluded season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented two musical pieces based on the theme of “Faust.”
In the more familiar staged version by Charles Gounod Lyric Opera scored a resounding triumph in the fall with several notable role debuts. Now La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz has entered the roster of Lyric Opera’s staged works and can also count as a musically fulfilling venture. The four soloists in this production rank among the foremost interpreters today of the music of Berlioz and of this dramatic work. Paul Groves sang the role of Faust in an interpretation which met all the challenges of the score and also left an individual stamp on his character’s portrayal. His tempter and nemesis Méphistophélès provided the bass baritone John Relyea with considerable opportunities for acting and vocalism. In this role Mr. Relyea was making his Chicago Lyric debut this season. Susan Graham performed the role of Marguerite with memorable artistic commitment, her singing reinforcing the reputation she enjoys for the music of Berlioz. Christian Van Horn sang the role of Brander in a convincing portrayal by which the text matches ideally his movements and gestures. Sir Andrew Davis conducted a fluid and well-rehearsed Lyric Opera Orchestra in a performance expressing the vital nuances of the score.
Soon after the curtain rises in this new production, the figure of Faust appears caught inside a box-like elevated space at the center of the stage. Mr. Groves wore modern, semi-formal dress, and he sat positioned in front of a computer. A cell phone was intermittently visible in the tenor’s hand. The stage as depicted is an effective externalization of the lead character’s feelings of despair and isolation. The walls of the boxed space seem to cause his frustration to grow, just as Groves paced repeatedly to indicate a nervous relation to sounds and emotions from the outside. This staging was, however, less effective in suggesting Faust’s physical journey from the plains of Hungary in the first part of the score to his workroom and surroundings in northern Germany in the second part. Again the viewer was prompted to visualize such a physical transfer and symbolic movement from the projected text. Before that shift in scene a lush orchestral interlude, here richly played, emphasized the spirit of life circulating in the world outside of Faust’s surroundings. Groves seemed to be praying at his computer in order to arrive at some answer to his dilemma of isolation. At this point the chorus emerged from various doors and passageways located below the suspended box. Also here in dress suggestive of a post-World War II decade the chorus sings variously of pleasures and freedom from care. The assemblage in civilian garb then gave way to a group of soldiers bent on recruiting new forces, all preparatory to the stirring Hungarian March. This part was effectively staged as nearly a ballet for the soldiers while Davis kept taut control over the superb playing from the orchestra.
Susan Graham as Marguerite [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
At the opening of the second part it is clear that Faust’s travels have not solved his feelings of “ennui.” His opening soliloquy was movingly intoned by Groves with memorable intonation on “je souffre” [“I suffer”] and “la nuit sans étoiles” [“the night without stars”]. Only the entrance of the chorus singing an Easter hymn prevents Faust from consuming poison. The innovative staging at this point focused attention on a large standing crucifix shining with yellow light, while soldiers now intermingled as they removed flags from coffins lined up symmetrically on either side of the stage. The surging tones of the chorus showed Faust sensing renewal and a readiness to live, emphasized by Groves with lyrically convincing high notes pronounced at “O mon âme tremblante!” [“O my fluttering soul!”]. Ironically it is at this point that Méphistophélès enters. Mr. Relyea, who emerged as one from the chorus, removed the collar of a priest from his costume and declared his presence as the spirit of life. He offers to entertain Faust and to fulfill all his desires. Once Faust accepted, the atmosphere of Auerbach’s Keller was rendered as a transformation of the preceding: the coffins on stage opened, girls emerged to treat the crucifix as a pole for dancing, and a cabaret-like setting lifted Faust from his torpor. Relyea performs the role of Méphistophélès as a suave, understated tempter who leads others to the responsibility of their own downfall. By contrast, Christian Van Horn sang the role of Brander in the tavern with gusto and fully committed gestures. Faust is at first attracted yet then repulsed by these lurid displays of the tempter’s vision of life. From this point to the close of the second part Faust now coasts toward inevitable infatuation. He is lulled to sleep in a bed of roses, in the midst of which he sees a vision of Marguerite in his dream. In this production Marguerite appears in her bedroom caught in the same box-like structure which earlier housed Faust. She seems to sleep fitfully, as though plagued by thoughts beyond her control. As he awakens from the dream Groves calls out the name Marguerite with exquisite sustained top notes. He concedes to the suggestion of Méphistophélès that they should approach the girl’s house as part of a crowd of students. As the act ends Faust appears at Marguerite’s bed holding a bouquet of roses from his dream.
During the third and fourth parts the passionate attraction between Faust and Marguerite reaches its resolution and destructive consequences. At first Faust appears alone in her room and luxuriates in the aura of her accustomed surroundings. When Marguerite begins to speak, she elaborates on her equivalent dream and her vision of the beloved whom she has yet to meet. In the following scene the well-known ballad “Autrefois un roi de Thulé´[“Once a king of Thule”] gives expression to her sentiments of melancholy longing. Susan Graham, poised on a balcony outside her stuffy room and holding a lit cigarette, sang the ballad with touching ardor, the arching phrases matching the movements of the goblet as the King of Thule cast it into the sea. After this moving expression of her character, Méphistophélès called upon the service of various spirits in order to lure Marguerite into Faust’s presence. Their duet of recognition led to a convincing declaration in which both principals sang excitedly of their “ivresse” [“passion”]. The short-lived union is brought to its close by Méphistophélès who warns that the neighbors are calling to Marguerite’s mother that “un gallant est dans ta maison” [“a gallant is in your house”].
Paul Groves as Faust [Photo by Robert Kusel courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
In the fourth part Marguerite sings plaintively of her love granted and her current loneliness in the romance “D’amour l’ardente flame” [“The burning flame of love”]. Ms. Graham sang the piece with the conviction of one who has granted her entire being in love and is now left with only the memory. In this production she was now shown serving multiple cups of tea to her mother by which she hoped to administer a sleeping potion. Soon afterward Marguerite was led away by armed police when her mother’s lifeless body was discovered. It is at this point that Méphistophélès reminds Faust of his beloved. When Faust learns of Marguerite’s fate he agrees to sign the document by which he will serve the demonic force in order to save her. On two black steeds, as here simulated, Méphistophélès and Faust pursue the Ride to the Abyss as the soul of Faust is claimed in the eternal depths. The final scene unites Marguerite with the lighted crucifix, transformed again from earlier in this production, as she ascends the stairs in God’s forgiveness.