01 Sep 2010
Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel — BBC Prom 61
The annual visit of Glyndebourne Opera to the BBC Proms has become an eagerly awaited event.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
The annual visit of Glyndebourne Opera to the BBC Proms has become an eagerly awaited event.
This year, Laurent Pelly’s 2008 staging of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale favourite, Hansel and Gretel, with its economical, ‘recession-savvy’ sets — brown cardboard boxes à la homeless-city, floor-mop trees, litter-strewn landscape and flimsy paper ovens — proved a timely and fitting choice for the restricted stage space and theatrical basics available at the Royal Albert Hall. The absence of luxurious stage designs and copious props was certainly not a hindrance to Stéphane Marlot’s clever adaptation for the Royal Albert Hall, which hinted at fantasy and enchantment but left it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the ambiguous gaps — which is just as it should be in fairyland.
After a long Glyndebourne run, which began in July, the cast were confident and at ease; interestingly, performances that might have lacked freshness were given a boost of spontaneity by the unfamiliar locale, none more so that the arrival William Dazely’s Father, surreptitiously signalled by a speculative glance to the back of the Arena by conductor, Robin Ticciati. A boisterous Dazely, clutching two bursting supermarket-bags, raucously negotiated his way through a crowded, surprised Proms Arena, lurching and launching himself over successive barriers to climb up to the stage — the cymbal player serving as a useful bag carrier as the final hoist was accomplished.
As his wife, Imgard Vilsmaier was rather less rough and ready. Vilsmaier has a big Wagnerian voice — booming the Mother’s frustration and despair to the rafters of the Gallery — but it is a pleasant-toned instrument, one which she modulated skilfully in her Act 1 aria to convey her maternal distress and despair.
But it is eponymous siblings who dominate the opera, and this production presented a superlative pairing. Alice Coote, enacted an astonishing metamorphosis to petulant, prepubescent mischief-maker — a touch of attention deficit disorder, perhaps? Coote was exhaustingly hyperactive, even managing to make disappearing into a cardboard box appear interesting and amusing. Her glorious tone was consistently projected with clarity and warmth - one cannot imagine a better Hansel, or a mezzo-soprano who enjoys the role more. Lydia Teuscher, as Gretel, held her own admirably with such a seasoned partner. Possessing a crisp, clear soprano, she twisted and twirled engagingly with her impish brother, their voices entwining with breathtaking beauty in the Evening Prayer.
Attired in a fluorescent pink two-piece suit and bouffant wig, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was an eye-watering picture of consumerist and gastronomic greed as the Witch. His ‘Shirley-Bassey’ strutting, brazenly clutching an upturned mop — microphone or broomstick? — raised uncomfortable hackles, and anticipated the exposure of his chilling intent when he whipped off the wig and revealed the sinisterly bare-headed, pot-bellied, knife-wielding monster beneath the deceptively frivolous drag-queen apparel.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch
In the absence of the full trappings of the opera house, it was essentially left to the lighting scheme to successfully evoke location and ambience. The panels encircling the raised platform variously shone ice-blue, for the loveless, foodless family home; blared gothic red for the slaughter-house kitchen; twinkled luminous silver for the moonlit forest; and gleamed verdant green for the final familial reunion. Despite these resourceful effects, it remained somewhat difficult for the minor roles to establish their character effectively, in such a large arena, although the performances of both Tara Erraught, as the Sandman, and Ida Falk Winland’s Dew-Fairy captured the ambiguous bitter-sweet mood of this production.
The children’s chorus, no doubt well-drilled for Glyndebourne, sang sweetly but looked a little unsure and slightly stilted as they moved around the confines of the stage platform. The Dream Pantomime is a clever concept though: Pelly presents a pristine parade of white-frocked, well-fed children, gorging on Big Macs while a hungry Hansel and Gretel can only dream of gluttonous gastronomy — an ‘angelic host’ which leaves the children nothing but discarded wrappers and empty bellies. As one critic has put it, this is a sharp metaphor for the ‘haves and have-nots’, a pertinent message which Pelly presumably hoped would not be lost on the affluent Glyndebourne clientele.
Lydia Teuscher as Gretel and Alice Coote as Hänsel
Conductor Robin Ticciati, danced light-footedly on the podium before an engaging and committed London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ticciati proved himself a master of rhythmic flexibility, skilfully controlling pace to expose the juxtapositions of sweet joy and melancholy deprivation, energetic optimism and despondent resignation, which characterise the score. The orchestra provided the tints and shades of the rich colour palette which was missing visually; their energetic playing never tipped into Wagnerian weightiness, as Ticciati conjured both the effervescence of the children’s escapade and the satisfyingly soporific moments of rest.
There were no sub- or sur-titles for this performance; thus the audience were prompted out of an habitual ‘laziness’, forced to listen closely to the sung text, or attentively follow the libretto provided in the programme, or to rely on their familiarity with this well-known tale. There were no complaints, and no difficulties, as far as I could tell; we simply rediscovered our ability to be responsive to what was presented to our eyes and ears, an effort which audiences should be pushed to make more frequently perhaps?
As the fairy-story reached its equivocal ‘happy ever after’, Ticciati’s baton drew ravishing warmth from his players. Pelly’s reading of this Grimm tale may be ironic and more than a little shadowy, but the darkness on this occasion was buried beneath the orchestral light and hope.