06 Feb 2011
Der Freischütz, Toulon
Carl Marie von Weber’s magical masterpiece has had a hard time of it in France.
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.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Carl Marie von Weber’s magical masterpiece has had a hard time of it in France.
In his memoirs Hector Berlioz heaps condemnation upon its 1824 premiere in Paris where it had been made over to appeal to Parisian (French) taste. Le Freischütz according to Berlioz was “mutilé, vulgarisé, torturé, insulté” — it had in fact even become Robin des Bois.
The usual sarcastic bombast of the memoirs is however absent when Berlioz describes his own transformation of the work. He composed sung recitatives to replace its spoken dialogues for its performances at the Paris Opera in 1841 — no spoken words at this altar of musical art!
Von Weber’s Romantic masterpiece has had a very hard time of it just now in Toulon (home of the French Mediterranean fleet, its magnificent opera house said the be the model for the Paris Opéra Garnier). Its extensive spoken dialogues had been somewhat restored (delivered in German by an international cast [there was one German] to this French speaking audience).
The metteur en scène in Toulon was sixty-three-year-old Jean-Louis Benoit, director of the Théâtre National La Creee-Marseille. He too re-wrote von Weber’s delicate masterpiece, translocating it from the enchanted forests of a mythical Germany to inside Max’s head, a space “urbanisé, métallique, no longer in need of a forest”[!] according to Mr. Benoit.
These days one has learned that it is dangerous to question the visions of stage directors, and anyway it is indeed true that all human perception occurs in someone’s head. Unfortunately Mr. Benoit and his scenic collaborator Laurent Pedruzzi did not have the vocabulary or technique to realize such a concept — the enchanted forest was reduced to a huge hanging circle, presumably a moon, the Wolf Glen was an empty stage, the forest ranger’s home was a bed.
Mr. Benoit’s actors moved presentationally in costumes that identified their character (some of the chorus wore metallic gray great coats), addressing themselves directly to the audience. Chorus movement was geometric and in direct relationship to the musical structure. The metallic urbanization seemed to make this production no more than a concert performance of one of the repertory’s most splendid scores.
Laurence Equilbey is one of the rare females admitted into the fraternity of conductors. Mme. or Ma. Equilbey took a very literal approach to this score, marking its beat stolidly and seldom allowed its music to take flight. In fact Ma. Equilbey seemed to be in contention with the stage from time to time when the music wanted it to take flight all by itself and she insisted on the beat.
This is not to say that we did not hear von Weber’s opera. The orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon approached the score with obvious respect, and responded to its conductor’s talents by giving a clean performance, if one lacking the tonal splendor of, let’s say, the Berlin Philharmonic.
Grave responsibility to create both character and music rests on the shoulders of concert singers. Berlioz noted that the Agathe of Robin des Bois was a lovely singer who delivered her great second act aria with “imperturbable sang-froid” and with all the charm of a vocalise. Much the same thing can be said of the performance of the Toulon Agathe, American soprano Jacqueline Wagner who applied the same sang-froid to Agathe’s lovely third act prayer as well.
Max, Agathe’s misguided fiancé, was entrusted to German tenor Jürgen Müller who combined sturdy singing with believable character. He managed to recover from some vocal malaise that marred the third act trio with Agathe and Ännchen to finish the opera in fine form. All in all he offered a splendid performance.
The Kaspar was sung by Moldovian bass-baritone Roman Ialcic who discovered the cunning of von Weber’s evil paysan but did not project its force. Mr. Ialcic too is a fine singer. Georgian bass Nika Guliashvili was too young to be Agathe’s father, and too green to portray the gravity the head forest ranger Kuno, Canadian soubrette Mélanie Boisvert was an appropriate Ânnchen.