06 Feb 2011
Der Freischütz, Toulon
Carl Marie von Weber’s magical masterpiece has had a hard time of it in France.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.