Recently in Performances
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
29 Nov 2010
Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Australia
Neil Armfield’s insightful staging of Le nozze di Figaro is making a welcome return in the lead-up to his direction of the Ring Cycle for the Wagner bi-centenary 2013 (the first complete cycle staged in Melbourne in a century).
Armfield’s view of late eighteenth century life in Spain is a dark
one. The Almaviva household is held in the same disdain as the then monarch
Carlos IV and his dysfunctional family. Goya inspires Dale Ferguson’s
costumes; Countess Almaviva in particular, in oyster satin (and thanks to
Rachelle Durkin’s supermodel physique and bearing) has the devastating
allure of Goya’s beloved Duchess of Alba. Goya even makes an appearance
in act three to ‘photograph’ Figaro’s nuptials and, just as
he did in his portrait of the Royal Family, captures a household in sexual,
social and political turmoil.
Fergusson’s sets feature deliberate anachronisms that, to my eyes,
show the contemptible attitude of the Almaviva’s to their staff. A
shabby, vinyl reclining armchair dominates act one for Cherubino then the Count
to hide behind or in. It’s the sort of out-of-date furniture that would
normally be dumped but here is given to the servants to furnish their quarters.
For the wedding celebrations the Count provides a battered tea urn and
I prefer a deeper voiced Figaro contrasting the lighter voiced Count as
here. With that gruff edge to his voice Teddy Tahu Rhodes exemplifies the
peasant against the more refined voice of Peter Coleman-Wright’s
aristocrat. In “Se vuol ballare” he embellishes the repeated theme.
The result is a little ungainly but in terms of characterisation the growl
works splendidly. Even better in “Non più andrai” he directs the
second verse to the Count, seated smugly in the recliner chair, and, towering
over the trembling Count, warns him his days of philandering are over too and
reminding us how revolutionary this opera (and the play it derives from) was
feared to be. Armfield fills the opera with insights like these and the
principal singers — especially Coleman-Wright, Rhodes, Durkin and Tiffany
Speight — integrate them into their performances with easy assurance.
Tall and sleek Durkin’s arms glide naturally into gestures both
graceful and, at appropriate times, erotic. When, in act two, the Count tries
to force her away from the door to force open the closet where Cherubino hides,
he at first violently lays his gloved hands on her only to let them roam over
her breasts and body making the sexual connection still existing between the
two — despite their current marital problems — alarmingly obvious.
Durkin’s response to this rare moment of contact with her faithless
husband, melting at his touch, is simultaneously elegant and erotic. Erotic
obsession is the basis of this opera after all and this insight into that
eroticism created a frisson. The Countess’s attraction to Cherubino was
insightfully played up too; the Countess wilting to his act two serenade like
Gomez used to when Morticia spoke French.
Speight’s voice grows in size and stature with each appearance.
Speight also has charming way with and special claim on Mozartian maids. Sian
Pendry bravely displays the rampaging teenage sexuality of Cherubino behaving
at times like a spaniel in heat! She neatly negotiates the rapid pace set for
“Non so piu” beautifully enunciating the words as do he rest of the
The secondary characters weave through the story with only occasional
success. Elizabeth Campbell’s Marcellina is another character caught in a
precarious situation. Her frustrations run deeper than mere anxiety over her
age. Her favour with Count Almaviva, depends on her winning her case against
Figaro. In Campbell’s hands there is that sense Marcellina is greatly
relieved when she finds Figaro is her son and she can escape to bourgeoisie
security as Bartolo’s wife. When Armfield’s production was first
staged Don Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias were cut. They were
restored for the revival in Sydney, although Marcellina’s is excised for
this Melbourne season. The tenor Robert Tear specialises in singing Basilio and
devotes an entire essay to him in his book Singer Beware offering an
illuminating analysis into “the quality of thought which might invest a
small part with a fresh interest and, at the same time, probably alter the
usual balance of the opera. “If the aria, is cut,” he writes,
“the character becomes extremely hard to play simply because the chance
of explaining his character to the audience is taken away, all the earlier
behaviour seeming merely eccentric or stupid.” Basilio is a man of great
intelligence, according to Tear, “more intelligent than anyone else in
the Almaviva household” the seemingly bizarre aria “In quelli anni
cui dal poco” is making a point about this
“musician/thinker’s position in a philistine aristocratic house of
the period.” While the near-revolutionary sentiments of Figaro’s
are extrovertly apparent in Armfield’s clever twist in “Non più
andrai”, there could have been similar possibilities with Basilio’s
aria explaining his philosophy and how it helped him survive the
“fooleries of class and politics” surrounding him. Conductor Marko
Letonja actually highlights the ascending horn passages at the end of
Balisio’s aria so they ring out with a confidence worthy of Beethoven and
suggest maybe the triumphant Basilio is another plebeian hero. Kanen Breen
plays Basilio primarily for laughs and by the time the aria arrives the
character has become a rococo incarnation of Kenneth Williams. It’s an
assured performance however; the character slithers around with decreasing fear
of his betters.
There is a touch of early music practice from the orchestra; fortepiano
replacing the usual harpsichord and the strings adopting that occasionally
‘wiry’ sound associated with early music practice. Acts one and two
work the best in this current revival, the sexual and social strain made
delightfully relevant by director and cast.