Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

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.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

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.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

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: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘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.

Nabucco at Orange

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: Notturno

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.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

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.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

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.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

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.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

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?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

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.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘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.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

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).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

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 : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

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.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]
12 Jul 2010

Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) at Iford Manor

Something rather extraordinary happened to opera seria in 1738. The acknowledged master of that time, London’s George Frideric Handel, presented two new operas at the King’s Theatre: Faramondo and Serse.

G. F. Handel: Serse

Xerxes: William Purefoy; Arsamene: Andrew Radley; Amastre: Kristin Finnigan; Romilda: Verity Parker; Atalanta: Kristy Swift; Elviro: William Townend; Ariodate: Jonathan Brown. Orchestra: La Nuova Musica, directed/conducted by David Bates. Director: David Freeman. Designer: Louie Whitemore.

Above: William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]

 

They were stylistically very different and with the latter the German-born composer threw caution to the winds both musically and dramatically.

It was a bad call at the time as Serse flopped completely. The trouble was that he dared to change a tried and tested formula: the wholly serious, or tragic, seria format was infiltrated by comic or buffo elements; he mixed characters of both high and low class within the drama, and he even tinkered with the classic A-B-A da capo form of the arias. In Serse much of the vocal music is in arioso form, which drives the action forward more than the traditional, more musically complex da capo format. All this was too much for London audiences at the time and Handel lost money and soon after abandoned opera for the oratorio form. Luckily for us, today we can appreciate his innovations and revel in them — as indeed did the audience at Iford Opera in Wiltshire last Friday night.

Iford-2010_-Andrew-Radley--.gifAndrew Radley as Arsamene [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]

Once again, Iford Arts is to be congratulated for rising so magnificently above the apparent limitations of its charming venue — one could indeed argue that those very limitations of size and accessibility produce something special time and again and last night was no exception. Iford encourages young talent and in its regular offerings of Handel masterpieces in intimate surroundings it also encourages the singers to concentrate on expression and colour, as they do not need to worry about pushing their voices.

The usual convoluted Handel plot of misplaced affections, thwarted plans, ladies (and men) in disguise and the triumph of love and duty (in varying degrees) was efficiently translated into the tiny, greenery-draped colonnaded space that is the delightful Iford Cloister by director David Freeman. Although advertised as “Serse”, the opera was given in English and this “Xerxes” was a translation/edit by Andrew Jones which revived memories of the famous Hytner production of the 1980’s in its language, if not its staging. The lively score, regretfully drastically abridged, was offered in spicy miniature by the well-regarded players of La Nuova Musica directed from the harpsicord by David Bates who encouraged some really meaty, full-blooded playing from his 10 piece ensemble. In Acts I and II the cast were somewhat depressingly attired in budget-store casuals with a bit of sequin tat here and there to suggest royalty (one felt particularly for the female singers who suffered very unflattering wardrobes — surely at odds with the story?) but come Act III things improved a little. A few pyrotechnics, many tiny candles, and a clever exploding model bridge (to take King Xerxes across the Hellespont into Greece) made the most of the tiny stage area.

KristinFinnigan-_-Photo-Ral.gifKristin Finnigan [Photo by and courtesy of Ralph Ripley]

More importantly, there was much to admire vocally with some excellent singing from the young cast, many of whom are at the beginning of their careers yet showed remarkable histrionic as well as musical abilities in this most demanding of genres. There was no one outstanding performer, but we left with perhaps three strong memories: the exciting contralto voice of young Kristin Finnigan (Amastre) which promises to help revive the great tradition of this most English of voice types, the impressive comic timing and agile baritone of William Townend (Elviro) and the expressive warm-toned countertenor of Andrew Radley (Arsamene). Verity Parker impressed with some spot-on high coloratura as Romilda whilst also singing with some nice supple tone. She was contrasted effectively with Kristy Swift in the soubrette role of Atalanta who brought out the foxiness of this character with some sparkling high notes and agile phrasing. Rather unusually, this production gave the title role to a countertenor, the more experienced William Purefoy. These days, it’s more often a mezzo soprano role (although written by Handel for a soprano castrato of great renown, Caffarelli) but here at Iford the tiny stage and proximity of the audience enables the less powerful countertenor voice to take it on. Purefoy coped well enough with the high tessitura of this demanding role, if not convincing us dramatically. His was no dangerously vindictive King but rather a placid, slightly academic, royal. This was particularly so in the scenes with his stage brother Prince Arsamenes, when Radley acted for both of them. Purefoy is certainly a good singer (his “rage” aria, Crudie furie in Act III was efficiently despatched despite its huge demands on the singer) but rather miscast here.

The role of the bluff, if dim, General Ariodate was robustly taken by baritone Jonathan Brown who made much of his limited role whilst contralto Kristin Finnigan was forced to do the same. How one longed to hear more of Amastre’s music and less of her creeping around the cloister, forever listening to the plotting of others’ loves. Finnigan might just be something special in the making — directors take note.

Cutting Handel is a fact of life — unpleasant but sometimes necessary — but for this writer there were just too many “cuts too far”. So many important, and lovely, arias went unheard. Everyone comes to Iford by car (there is no evening public transport in this idyllic rural location) so why not revel in more of Handel’s sublime music and get home half an hour later? After all, another thirty minutes in this beautiful place, with music of this quality, is hardly an imposition.

© Sue Loder 2010

Serse, by G.F. Handel continues on the 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th July at Iford, near Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, U.K. More information: www.ifordarts.co.uk

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):