Recently in Performances
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?
06 Aug 2010
Prom 21 — Berlioz and Wagner
Period instruments and nineteenth-century grand opera are seldom found on the same stage — or even the same sentence — but as adventurous practitioners increasingly experiment in the repertoire of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it’s a sight and sound that will inevitably become more familiar.
And, that’s no bad thing. This concert, the first of Sir Simon
Rattle’s three Prom appearances this season, offered the opportunity to
hear two great romantic scores performed on contemporary instruments and if the
results of the lower pitch and the full, mellow tone of the OAE were not always
wholly successful in the dramatic contexts, they were certainly
thought-provoking and at times illuminating.
While the decision to present classic dramas of love and death by two
cultural giants, Shakespeare and Wagner, seemed a natural and sensible one, it
led to a slightly unbalanced programme, with the erotic love scene of
Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, forming a first half
lasting only 18 minutes — even in this rather slow reading by Rattle.
Berlioz’s vast structure and forces — nine double basses towered
over the centre of the platform — were shaped and guided with finesse by
Rattle, who was ever alert to the composer’s startling harmonic effects.
However, despite the use of copies of nineteenth-century woodwind instruments
(for example, the oboes played on models of German instruments c.1865, with an
easy, soft lower register; the bassoons employed French instruments c.1840 for
the Berlioz, switching to German post-1870 for the Wagner, the latter
possessing a darker, less reedy tone which blends well with the horns and
clarinets), the sharp individuality of particular instrumental lines was
somewhat softened, woodwind colours blending sweetly with the whole but not
always delivering their full dramatic impact.
A similar problem was apparent after the interval, in Act 2 of
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the harmonious whole was
achieved at the expense of orchestral incisiveness. Wagner aimed for a unity of
instrumental and vocal lines, with the symphonic leitmotivic texture carrying
the burden of the emotional and dramatic narrative, in dialogue with
declamatory and naturalistic vocal melodies; but here the wash of orchestral
sound served primarily as a secure, relaxed back-drop to the singers, who were
therefore pushed to the foreground. Adding the fact that this was a concert
performance, with no scenery and little dramatic interaction between the
soloists, this was hardly the Gesamkunstwerk of Wagner’s
That said, the concordant orchestral cushion elicited by Rattle did evoke a
sense of ‘distance’, and an appropriately ethereal atmosphere, for
Tristan’s and Isolde’s desire can never be fulfilled in this world
and release from yearning will only be achieved through transcendence.
Moreover, particular instrumental effects were not neglected, and the rich
palette of the period orchestra was revealed: the off-stage horns signalling
the departure of the hunting party were strident and clamorous, while eerie sul
ponticello playing by the strings conveyed both the delicacy of the moment and
the anxious vulnerability of the lovers. Low woodwind colours intimated the
shift from the daylight world to the realms of night, from the mundane to the
oblivion of the sub-conscious.
With two renowned Wagnerian specialists in the cast, expectations were high,
and it was no surprise that the quality of the singing invested this
performance with vigour and compelling drama. Violeta Urmana, as Isolde, had no
difficulty filling the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, her powerful,
impassioned soprano always secure and focused, her tone thrillingly ecstatic.
Sadly, Ben Heppner’s Tristan was less assured and rather inconsistent.
While there is no doubting his innate appreciation of this musical language,
there were more than a few wobbles, as he struggled to project. Yet, the
exquisite sound for which he is renowned can still genuinely reveal
Tristan’s exaltation. Franz-Josef Selig negotiated King Mark’s long
monologue with confidence and clarity, conveying both the authority and stature
of the betrayed King and the pain caused by Tristan’s disloyalty. Sarah
Connolly communicated Brangäne’s distress thoughtfully, with controlled
phrasing and delivery. Timothy Robinson (Melot) and Henk Neven (Kurvenal)
completed the accomplished cast.
Overall this was a thoughtful and refined performance. But while these two
passionate romantic encounters certainly touched the heart they did not,
perhaps, quite reach to the soul.