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.
22 Feb 2011
The Bartered Bride, New York
In the mid-nineteenth century, every nationality that did not possess a
national state felt a need to prove itself, to square its shoulders and claim
nationhood with all the identifying marks of a nation: a language with a
literature, a tricolor flag, a national anthem extolling the people’s
stalwart character and the country’s landscape (inevitably the loveliest
in the world), a national theater and a national opera to be performed there.
The national opera was often based on national legends and national folk tunes;
when possible, national folk dances made an appearance.
Bedřich Smetana resolved to create the Czech national opera at a time
when Czech nationhood was subsumed in that of the Austrian Empire, and he chose
a legend about a Czech dynast. Scenes from this opera adorn the walls of the
National Theater in Prague, which was constructed at that time, to this day.
The opera is called Libuše (the name of the prophetess who
founded both Prague and the Czech royal house); it is rarely performed in the
Czech lands and obscure outside them. Instead, to both the Czechs and the rest
of the world, the national opera is Smetana’s light, merry Prodaná
Nevěsta, to the English-speaking world (for it is seldom given in
Czech here) The Bartered Bride. In this guise it has long been in the
category of occasional revivals, the overture almost too familiar (orchestras
love it for the rhythmic workout it gives the strings: it’s a charming
showoff piece). The Met and Juilliard chose it for the first of what one hopes
will become a tradition of collaborations between the Met’s Lindemann
Young Artists and the Juilliard opera program in their nifty little opera
theater, the Peter J. Sharp. The omens look good.
One did wonder, though, at the performance, what Smetana’s charming
folk opera was doing in a Central European café in doom-laden 1938? Was some
ideological point intended? Or (one sneered) was it just that they
couldn’t afford costumes of the proper era? A program note by director
Stephen Wadsworth cleared things up: No, they couldn’t afford a full
stage of fancy peasant costumes. He gets applause from me for not trying to
make some political point of this, and for clear storytelling though, as usual
with Wadsworth, it’s a bit fussy. Something is always going on,
people are always dancing outside the window when the action should focus on
one character’s solo distress. All the performers were expected to insert
bits of folk-dance into their arias, just to ground us in Czech-ness, which
they did with varying skill—but being able to dance credibly while
they sing is part of the skill-set evidently being taught the Lindemann
Young Artists at the Met. But I still can’t believe parents in Central
Europe in 1938 would dare to arrange a marriage for their daughter without
consulting her any more than they would today.
Opera translations into English come in at least four varieties: Risible,
unendurable, irritating and inaudible. Inaudible—ENO’s Wagner, for
example—is my favorite. Sandy McClatchy’s new version of
Bartered Bride (an opera I have never heard sung in Czech) was mildly
irritating: lots of false rhymes and false accents (the heroine’s name,
at least, should fall with the proper emphasis), but many of those attending
seemed to enjoy it and it was so clearly sung that surtitles should not have
been necessary. The stuttering Vašek got laughs from those who find
disabilities hilarious. (In Smetana’s day, no doubt, that was a larger
Jennifer Johnson Cano as Ludmila, Layla Claire as Mařenka, Donovan Singletary as Krusina, and Jordan Bisch as Kecal
Among the singers, slim, red-haired Layla Claire made the biggest impression
as Mařenka, the bartered bride. She is a talented, affecting actress,
both flirting and sorrowing, and her voice has a Central European sort of
vibrato and a winning, plangent smoothness and rose on occasion to an opulent
high C. Too, she worked her irritations out in dance steps that seemed
unusually well integrated into her character. Paul Appleby, as her Jeník,
displayed the several colors of his attractive tenor well, though he was
unattractively costumed and obliged to use precious breath dancing with rage.
Alexander Lewis had the part of Vašek, Jeník’s stuttering
half-brother, and his well-supported light, high tenor made a nice contrast
between the suitors; he also dances winningly and acts ably: a comic
scene-stealer. I see Rossini and Donizetti leading roles in his future. Jordan
Bisch was also an audience favorite in the buffo role of the pompous marriage
broker, Kecal. His perfect diction and command of blowhard nuance (Kecal thinks
he’s smarter than anybody, even when he loses the barter of the title)
were as enduring as his rounded low notes. Noah Baetge’s star turn as the
Ringmaster of a convenient carnival invasion was not vocally impressive, but
that was all right since his part is written to be upstaged by ridiculous
circus acts—the bearded “lady” ballerina and the
contortionist were particular crowd-pleasers. The four annoying parents who
clutter the plot proved their worth when they joined distraught Mařenka
for the quintet that was the evening’s vocal peak. James Levine conducted
the Juilliard Opera Orchestra, and the thrilling, rushing string writing gave
no problems and great delight.