Recently in Performances
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.
12 Oct 2010
Promised End — English Touring Opera
In the final scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, faced with the dreadful sight of the distraught Lear cradling in his arms the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, the Earl of Kent asks: “Is this the promised end?”
His words perhaps recall the aged Lear’s earlier hope that he
might one day “Unburdened crawl towards death”. Or, as Edgar
interprets, they may evoke the more terrifying image of the Day of Judgement.
Whatever they infer, choosing Kent’s words as the title of an opera which
— its sub-plots stripped away, its minor (and some major) characters
shorn of significance — lasts less 90 minutes but which leaves the
audience longing for the eponymous conclusion, is a potentially dangerous
It’s not that Alexander Goehr’s new opera has no musical or
theatrical merits. Indeed, the first act moves briskly along and, for one
unfamiliar with its poetical predecessor, raises a few interesting ideas. But,
the second act rapidly loses focus; essentially this ‘personal
take’ on Lear has little to say or reveal.
“It’s about old men who get it wrong when they have power and
influence — and then get into a mess. That’s the reason I’m
doing this opera. […] As an incipient old man myself, that’s what
interest me about the story. I mean, I can do Romeo and Juliet now
— I’m past that stage.’”
So Goehr declared in a recent interview in The Guardian, explaining
his decision to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most complex, profound and
disturbing plays, and one which defeated even Verdi and Britten, who abandoned
long-held ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Now aged
78, Goehr professes that the impetus to tackle Lear came when, suffering from
depression upon retiring (reluctantly) from his Professorship at Cambridge
University, he happened to have a dream in which the play was ‘staged as
a Japanese Noh play’. The resulting opera mingles Noh stylizations with
Elizabethan conceits but the sum of the parts lacks substance and coherence.
One is reminded less of the successful cross-cultural integration of Noh
practices with the medieval Mystery Plays in Britten’s church parables
and rather more of the somewhat laboured device of the Male and Female Chorus
in The Rape of Lucretia. Conway’s production — in which
the chorus of principals stand (à la Brecht — another layer of
cultural reference) white-faced and stock-still, motionlessly addressing the
audience, ritually step through boxes of sand, and indulge in stylized dance
movements (for example to accompany the blinding of Gloucester) — taps
into the Noh clichés but offers little illumination.
Indeed, the shadow of Britten hangs over this opera in more ways than one.
The decision to use Shakespeare’s text verbatim recalls the approach of
Britten and Pears when constructing the libretto of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. In this case, the eminent scholar, the late Frank
Kermode, fashioned a libretto which Goehr has arranged in ’24
preludes’. But, while reducing the work to a manageable length —
excising several (essential?) aspects of the drama and focusing on the central
exchange between Lear and Gloucester — this still leaves the problem of
how to find an appropriate melodic idiom for Shakespeare’s poetry.
Goehr’s rather spiritless arioso simply does not convey the rich depths
and meanings embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the spoken play. Moreover,
the composer’s re-ordering of various episodes destroys the narrative
coherence and makes it near impossible for anyone lacking knowledge of the
original play to follow the psychological development.
The singers and players of English Touring Opera do their best. Lisa
Markeby, playing both Cordelia and the Fool — a now familiar theatrical
device — is appealing, but she is not given the opportunity to develop
and express the full extent of her inner goodness. And, while the expressive
focus of the opera is supposedly the meeting of the two foolish old men, Lear
and Gloucester, now chastened and wiser as they reflect on their short-comings,
the musical fabric fails to convey their supposed transformation. Roderick
Earle bellows and blusters as an aggressive Lear, his scenes with Nigel Robson
(Gloucester) lacking genuine emotional depth and sincerity. As Edgar, Adrian
Dwyer is convincing and impressive. Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) and Regan
(Julia Sporsen) are not musically differentiated and have little dramatic role
Ryan Wigglesworth draws clear lines and textures from his band, the Aurora
Orchestra. Goehr does create some interesting colours, not least through his
use of the chamber organ and guitar — which evoke fittingly Elizabethan
timbres — but the composite impression is one of episodic, unrelated
colourings designed to fill the gaps between scenes.
In his programme note, Goehr asks for the audience’s indulgence:
“So it remains only for me to say, that you will not be home too late and
ask that by your clapping you show some approval for what has been done
here.” This seems to me to be a patronising appeal to an audience that
may long for a less superficial musical response to a play that interrogates
essential questions of human existence.
Promised End is at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House,
London on 11, 14, 16 October and then tours until 26 November. For touring
details see www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.