24 Oct 2010
La Bohème, ENO
ENO clearly expect high returns from Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème.
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?
ENO clearly expect high returns from Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème.
Premièred just over a year ago and here receiving its first ‘revival’, the management are surely justified in their faith that it will match the enduring successes of his perennial Mikado (which will make yet another appearance in spring 2010) and Rigoletto: this Bohème is an apt tale of poverty and paucity to fill the coffers in austere times. For, while Miller’s vision certainly doesn’t indulge in sentimentalism — his bohemians are a pretty solipsistic bunch — he and his ingenious designer, Isabella Bywater, present us with an ocular feast. Updating the action to 1930s Paris, they have drawn copiously on the visual records of the period — the sepia-tinted photographs of Cartier-Brassaï and Kertész, the cinematography of film noir — to powerfully recreate the zeitgeist of a Depression-era Europe hedonistically living for today in the face of an uncertain or bleak future.
Bywater’s inspired designs are superbly detailed and naturalistic. Within the monochrome greys of city life, contrasts and counter-currents are pointed: the lofty atelier, with assorted clutter, perches above an empty café; Mimi’s humble rooms lie to the right of twisting staircase; the glimpsed warmth of a café interior poignantly emphasises the literal and figurative chill of the wintry square where Mimi and Rodolfo play out their tragedy. The Act 1 set splits and spins artfully, revealing first a street scene and then twisting back to display the exterior and pavement tables of Café Momus — a scene of sparkling yet superficial vivacity, splashes of colour briefly dismissingly the steely grey. Later, another rotation reveals an employment office, a reminder of reality; a further revolution takes us back to the garret room. The cinematic continuity is effortlessly achieved — a neat realisation of Puccini’s verismo (one is reminded that the first production was screened by Sky Arts, different Sky channels simultaneously relaying the events on stage and the backstage action a TV first for ENO).
Mairead Buicke as Musetta
Miller uses the spaces well: in the early acts, many a riposte is shouted from the Bohemians’ bathroom, warnings cry out from the stair-well, a marching band sweeps across the stage at the Act 2 curtain call, creating a sense of space and air which contrasts with the claustrophobic death room of the final scene. Jean Kalman’s lighting is subtle and thoughtful, no more so than when reflections from lowered windows of the garret add fragile glitter and light to the somewhat desperate Christmas festivities of the Café Momus revellers.
Miller is ever alert to the impact of small gestures and details: shutters are quietly closed as someone leaves the room, a lovers’ argument is glimpsed through an upstairs window. But, despite this attention to detail — aided perhaps by the sympathetic spontaneity of the performers themselves — this is not an overly fussy production. Miller’s chief concern seems to be to tell a simple story in a straightforward way, and he succeeds but this very simplicity does give rise to some difficulties.
Part of the problem is that the staging often raises the characters aloft, or pitches them afar. Thus, it’s difficult to establish who they really are — what they feel, if anything. A seemingly heartless bunch, they behave foolishly and suffer for their follies, but do we care? The first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimi is mutually contrived, and because their faces are essentially hidden from view, it’s hard to believe in their passion, or to be convinced that it would last more than one night! The orchestra may speak to us of romance, but our eyes witness a mercantile exchange, especially as Mimi begs continually for new gloves, a necklace The result is a drama with fewer tragic pulses than the average TV soap — there should be scarcely a dry eye in the house at the close, but any tears were surely the product of the superlatively tender violin accompaniment to Mimi’s demise rather than regret for her passing?
Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo, George von Bergen as Schaunard, Roland Wood as Marcello and Pauls Putninš as Colline
That’s not to say that the cast don’t put on a good show. Not least, we are introduced to Elizabeth Llewellyn, making her company debut as Mimi. A graduate of ENO Opera Works — a training opportunity for talented pre-professional singers who demonstrate potential, and designed specifically for those who come to the profession via unconventional routes — her warm, generous voice easily reached the rafters of the Coliseum, and was much appreciated by the audience. However, while this is an opera which always requires the audience to suspend their disbelief, it was hard to be persuaded that one of such remarkable vocal power was on the verge of consumption-afflicted demise a little more balance between affecting power and vulnerability would have been welcome.
Perhaps the problem is Miller’s conception of the role, for this Mimi is a consumerist flirt who at times seems to have less integrity than Mairead Buicke’s Musetta. Buicke, sporting a neat bob and modish apparel, has great stage presence and relished the theatricality of the role; she had no problem with the virtuosic demands of the part, although she does occasionally sound piercing or shrill. Gywn Hughes-Jones’ Rodolfo is a rather self-pitying sniveller, afraid of his emotions, insecure in his relationships. Challenged, as were the entire cast, to project above an enthusiastic orchestral fabric, often from the far reaches of the stage, Hughes-Jones was strong-toned and confident, but had a tendency to bellow and to come at notes from the side or below.
The Bohemians’ banter and bickering was humorously directed, with four of the first cast returning to their original roles. Roland Wood’s Marcello is vocally a little light-weight, but his diction was clear and his delivery elegant; the spitefulness of his repartee with Musetta added a surprising and effective frisson. George von Bergen and Paul Putninš were charming enough but made little dramatic impact. More arresting was Simon Butteris, whose amusingly lecherous Benoit is a perfectly conceived caricature. Both he and Richard Angas delivered their lines clearly and directly.
Stephen Lord encouraged the ENO orchestra to produce a rich palette of swelling Puccinian rhetoric, injecting some passion into this rather cold-hearted concept. But, this is ‘easy-listening’ and ‘comfort-viewing’ — indeed, in style and substance, there’s not much to choose between these Bohemians and another set of ‘miserables’ elsewhere in the West End. Direct, unpretentious and unsentimental, Jonathan Miller has given ENO another sure-fire winner.