Recently in Performances
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
29 Sep 2010
Faust by ENO
Perhaps because the rather stolidly Victorian character of both its music
and its morality, Gounod’s Faust has been out of fashion in the
UK in recent decades, and owes a debt to David McVicar and his darkly Gothic
production for the Royal Opera in 2004 (now, at last, available on DVD) for the
restoration of its footing in the standard repertoire.
ENO has entrusted its new production to Des McAnuff, best-known in London
for the musical Jersey Boys which is currently enjoying a long run at the
Prince Edward Theatre. The only toe he has thus far dipped in the operatic
water was a production of Wozzeck in San Diego last year — not a
piece that would come automatically to mind for a novice opera director. An
eclectic history, promising more than some of the guest directors engaged by
ENO in the recent past. McAnuff fixes the starting point of the opera in a WW2
atomic bomb laboratory. It is easy to believe how an ageing scientist would be
left feeling unfulfilled after devoting his life and career to an inherently
cold-blooded and inhuman vocation.
Faust’s reversion to youth appears to take him back to the early days
of WW1 — though a few obviously intentional anachronisms make the period
somewhat indistinct — and initially it is a romanticised vision of jolly
carousing soldiers with their girls in dirndl skirts and flouncy blouses. The
love scene is idealised even further, with intense coloured lighting, and
flowers appearing to spring up at will on the projected backdrop. From that
point forwards the scales start to fall from Faust’s eyes and time seems
to be sped up; the colour is blanched from the scene, Marguerite seems to age
several years in the few months that elapse between Acts 3 and 4, and even more
between then and the final scene. The perky soldiers of the Act 2 tavern scene
are almost unrecognisable when they return from duty, old and bent and going
crazy with shell-shock.
Melody Moore and Iain Paterson
In the title role, Toby Spence was a revelation. His attractive stage
presence, clarity of delivery and impeccable diction have never been in
question, but Faust is a fuller lyric role than Spence has been used to, and I
feared his voice may simply be swamped by the orchestra or vanish into the
further reaches of the Coliseum’s vast auditorium. But in the event, the
fullness of his sound at the very beginning had me worried that he might be
over-singing, and I was relieved when the sound seemed to settle down, easily
big enough for the occasion but retaining his trademark bright, youthful sound,
right up to a splendidly confident high C in ‘Salut, demeure’. It
is not the most flexible or nuanced sound, nor does it sound French —
I’m not sure it’s possible to when singing in English translation
— but it was confident, romantic and hugely enjoyable.
Iain Paterson was a congenial Mephistopheles, more gentleman than devil I
felt, and he’s got the stage presence for the role. Although his lowest
notes lack power (he’s a bass-baritone rather than a bass) he turned in
an exceptionally stylish vocal performance.
Melody Moore and Toby Spence
The American soprano Melody Moore made a disappointing first impression as
Marguerite (rendered in the surtitles as Margarita, though the principals
seemed to be approximating the French pronunciation); there is something
invulnerable and unyielding about her vocal quality which makes her difficult
to engage with, and she made hard work of the Jewel Song. She did come into her
own in the final scene, where the same qualities that had earlier been
frustrating made for an effectively steadfast ‘Anges purs’.
Benedict Nelson’s Valentin was secure and simply effective in
‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, and Anna Grevelius’s charmingly
androgynous Siebel was beautifully-sung.
Iain Paterson and Pamela Helen Stephen
Ed Gardner struck the right balance with the score, neither too heavy-handed
in the rhythmic numbers nor too over-indulgent in the lyrical ones. Only
‘Le veau d’or’ didn’t quite have the drive to take
McAnuff’s production worked for me for the most part, though it was
disappointing that he opted to cut the Walpurgisnacht ballet altogether —
all that remained of the scene was an episode in which Mephistopheles shows
Faust a group of tortured souls writhing round a table. If going down the
historically-informed opera ballet route doesn’t appeal (and frankly, why
would it?) surely the ballet is the greatest opportunity for a director and his
choreographer to add to the audience’s understanding, or to crystallize
their production concept in the form of a vignette?
At the end, with Marguerite redeemed and Faust dragged down by
Mephistopheles through a Don Giovanni-style trapdoor, we see the elderly Faust
appearing in his laboratory, collapsing after apparently having drained the cup
of poison from the start of the opera. Was his whole adventure into youth and
corruption, then, just the hallucination of a poisoned and dying man? The
elixir of youth to which Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s deadly draught
is poison of one sort or another, whether its effect be physical or moral, and
either way, Faust ends up back where he started.
Ruth Elleson © 2010