Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Richard Wagner
27 Sep 2010

Tristan und Isolde at Royal Festival Hall

Almost irrespective of the results, it was quite a statement to open the Philharmonia’s London concert season with a performance of Nietzsche’s ‘opus metaphysicum of all true art,’ Tristan und Isolde.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Gary Lehman; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Brangäne: Anne Sofie von Otter; King Marke: Matthew Best; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Stephen Gadd; Shepherd/Young Sailor: Joshua Ellicott; Steersman: Darren Jeffery. Visual Artist: Bill Viola; Artistic Collaborator: Peter Sellars. Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver); Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 26 September 2010.

 

Billed as a concert performance, it was not really, though I could not help wishing that it had been. Peter Sellars’s direction, or ‘artistic collaboration’, is restrained: generally a good thing in Tristan, which needs very little ‘doing’, though that very little can make all the difference. Would that Bill Viola showed such or indeed any restraint with his ‘video art’.

I saw his projections first at the Opéra national de Paris, two years ago. Then I was irritated and distracted, though there was a little more in the way of staging. Here, there was slightly less staging, which worked at least as well. The Royal Festival Hall was used imaginatively, singing from boxes providing, for instance, a nice impression of the ship: it actually put me in mind of the use of the same space for Nono’s Prometeo in 2008. However, I discovered on returning home that my distraction and the rest of my response tallied precisely with what I had written about the Paris performance, so my hopes for further understanding or at least ability to set Viola on one side were dashed. The Southbank Centre’s publicity read: ‘This concert performance will be set against the stunning backdrop of Bill Viola's film projections, further exploring the emotional subtexts of the work.’ Rarely, however, did these projections begin truly to engage with the work, let alone to explore texts or subtexts.

Distraction remains greatest during the first act. ‘Act I,’ to quote Viola, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ We are in the world of Orientalism — or ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. One wonders whether Viola has ever read Edward Said; he certainly seems blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of evoking ‘the East’ in such a way. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. The first act represents anything but purification; it is instead a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. As I commented last time, the death that approaches is not sacrificial, but the selfish bidding of Schopenhauer’s Will. (Schopenhauer’s Orientalism might have been well worth pursuing: no such luck.) As the act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem merely disconnected rather than daringly contradictory; worst of all, they make it difficult to concentrate on the surging musical drama. Some images later on work better: that across the sea at the beginning of the third act, for example, and the magical reverse drowning of the conclusion. But for the most part, this is a display of superimposed self-indulgent Californianism. Candles are lit, of course, since candles show ‘spirituality’. Indeed, throughout, the imagery evokes the tedium of New Age self-fulfilment, which could hardly be further from Wagner’s vision — and which is not sufficient of a counterpoint to evoke true contrast either.

The musical performances were of course a different matter — and it was a sad thing that they were sometimes overwhelmed. Esa-Pekka Salonen steered a sure course through the work, though the miraculous opening prelude began with excessive ponderousness. Though JPE Harper-Scott’s programme note made a powerful case for Tristan as an avowedly tonal drama — I shall return to this at the end — Salonen tended to stress the presentiments of late Mahler and Schoenberg rather than the Romanticism of Wagner’s score. Tristan’s delirious monologue responded especially well to this approach: I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so clearly as a male Erwartung. But to return to Nietzsche’s description of this as art’s opus metaphysicum, it was the metaphysical that was really lacking. Furtwängler, whose recording with this orchestra, remains the first choice any sane — and perhaps even insane — listener, could not have been more distant. The Philharmonia played extremely well, the strings sounding more German than I have heard them in a while. It was all a little too clinical, though, too well-drilled. Often, I found myself asking: yes, but what does this mean?

Violeta Urmana’s approach was rather different, not in the sense of metaphysics but in assimilating her role to nineteenth-century grand opera. She sang very well and made as dramatic an impression as one could reasonably hope for, but this was Isolde as diva. Her concerns again seemed resolutely of this world, the possibilities of the Schopenhauerian noumenal failing to register. On the more earthbound level, a little Nilsson-like sarcasm or irony would have helped too. Gary Lehman marshalled his resources well as Tristan. His was not a large-scale portrayal, but he did much more than get through the role, which is in itself a rare achievement. The delirium of the third act was perhaps a little too Lieder-like, but it was conveyed, albeit without those metaphysical implications expanding its horizons yet further. Matthew Best’s vibrato was somewhat intrusive as King Marke, especially during the second act, but his third-act forgiveness was humanly credible. I found the vowels of Jukka Rasilainen a little too much in a tradition that seems to mark Finnish singers in German — it must be something to do with the language — but otherwise he did fair enough service, if without scaling the heights or the depths. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Brangäne, however, was impressive in its detailed response. If hers is not the sort of voice I immediately think of for the role, one should retain an open mind in such matters. Her way with the poem was second to none, and her relative coolness, suggestively different from the typical Brangäne, fitted well with Salonen’s approach. I was especially impressed by Joshua Ellicott’s Shepherd: quite heart-rending, as moving a rendition as I can recall.

To return, briefly, to the matter of tonal or atonal (to steal from Schoenberg’s Three Satires), this performance made me reconsider my position somewhat. I am broadly in agreement, or at least I was, with Harper-Scott and others, for instance Roger Scruton, who insist upon the tonal underpinning of Wagner’s score. I now worry a little more, however, that such a reading, tracing its roots ultimately to Heinrich Schenker’s analytical approach, carries with it the danger of underselling what happens in between the opening Prelude and Isolde’s transfiguration. We do not, I hope, simply sit waiting for the end, for that final cadence. Indeed, the generative association of Wagner’s motivic web as well as his harmony carry with them important seeds of the serial constructivism that could lead twentieth-century composers to expansive, open-ended new universes of sound. There is a strong tendency towards the totality in Wagner’s work, of course, but there is also resistance within the material. Salonen’s intimations of Schoenberg heightened this sense — which rethinking, whatever my reservations, is testament to a successful performance.

Mark Berry

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):