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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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.’
31 Dec 2010
Aida at Bregenz Festival 2009
Some years ago a witty soul coined the term “jumping the shark” to identify the point at which any long-running television program had exploited all its innate story/character development possibilities and had to resort to ridiculous plot contrivances and spectacle to keep the episodes — and paychecks — coming.
For the curious, “jumping the shark” referenced an episode of Happy Days, a program that for years stayed within the confines of a small American town in the 1950s; in said episode, the characters ended up in Hollywood and one entered a contest to — yes, indeed — water-ski over an enclosure containing a shark.
If one thinks of the Bregenz Festival as a long-running hit show — and in the opera world, this lake-side venue for elaborate outdoor productions can fairly be called such — then with the 2009 Graham Vick Aida, the festival has indeed “jumped the shark.” The booklet essay (by Kenneth Chalmers) to the DVD set quotes many a laudatory blurb from various European reviews at the time of the show’s premiere. So maybe the experience on DVD can’t capture what the show is like live. As caught by cameras, Vick’s Aida is a frenetic mess — whether the action takes place in ankle-deep water, aloft in crane-elevated cages, boats, or fragmentary statuary, or on an endless flight of stairs. The success of the festival undoubtedly offers directors an ample budget, and the very nature of the lakeside venue demands big effects. But when an opera gets as hopelessly lost as Aida does here in all the pyrotechnics and staging conceits piled on the stage — and despite the authentic opportunities for spectacle in the libretto, at its heart this is a fairly intimate story of thwarted love — the “shark” has been “jumped.”
With the amazing work of set and costume designer Paul Brown, Vick presents a world with no set sense of time or place, mixing ancient and modern elements. Costumes are primarily contemporary, through with some elusive sense of logic; the priests, for example, wear papal miters. At the rear of the stage two huge blue feet, spangled with stars, have a vaguely period Egyptian look, as do other fragments apparently broken off the original monument, but the whole is clearly modeled on the Statue of Liberty. It’s a very Euro-friendly concept — America as subtext for militaristic oppression. Thus Amneris, who often wears a dress with stars spangled on it, appears at first with two leashes, at the ends of which are two prisoners with hoods over their heads. Why Amneris has been assigned Abu Ghirab prisoner-walking duty doesn’t have to be contemplated — just go with the anti-American flow. Aida is truly a slave here — not a higher-ranking attendant to the princess, as she is usually depicted. Wearing a dull jacket over a orange-red shift, she is washing the stairs with others slaves when first seen. Radames sings his opening confrontation with Amneris from yards away, and many of the key scenes have a similar distance between protagonists and antagonists, weakening the force of their interactions. In act three, when Aida is confronted by her father, he appears from the water before the stage, like the Creature from the Red Sea Lagoon. It’s all like the famous description of the staging of Meyerbeer’s operas — effects without causes.
The color scheme Vick and Brown work with may blind those sensitive to one end of the spectrum — from hot pinks to emergency beacon orange and onto purple and turquoise. The dancers spend a lot of time kicking up spray on a platform covered in about a foot of water. For act two, Amneris’s attendants manhandle some amazingly buff (and mostly Caucasian) Ethiopian prisoners in tighty-whiteys. Some viewers may be ready to escape into the tomb with Radames and Aida at the end, except there is no tomb — the condemned lovers sail off into the distance through the air, in a crane-hauled boat.
For sheer spectacle, this may well be the Aida to beat — and yes, it includes a huge elephant at one point (not a live one, but still — the cranes can’t be trusted with everything). However, for those actually interested in Aida as an opera, this set can’t be recommended. Besides the score being, as the booklet essay describes it, “trimmed,” the singers get no real chance to develop interesting characters or make their own vocal qualities known. The latter is true because they are all miked. The voices of the leads appear to be lighter than those one would normally hear in a conventional opera house, and the sound mix keeps the voices within a narrow range. As Amneris Iano Tamar looks smashing, but her lower range is too weak even for the microphones. To some extent the same is true of Iain Paterson as Amonasro, although he has enough power in the body of his voice to make a decent impression. The two leads have pleasant voices but neither Rubens Pelizzari as Radames or Tatiana Serjan as Aida give any indication of having the vocal goods to tackle these roles in a production without microphones and a sound mixer standing by. Conductor Carlo Rizzi and his orchestra are surely “miked” as well, and they whip up a fine wall of sound in the ensembles and triumphal parade.
The Blu-Ray version does make for an amazing picture on any high-end television. For viewers open to a version of this opera that places 21st century stage and camera technique over the essence of the work itself, this is not a set to be missed.
For others — consider the shark successfully jumped.