20 Feb 2011
Thomas Arne, Bampton Classical Opera
The first performance of Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred took place at Clivedon House on the Thames near Maidenhead, in August 1740.
The former lyric soprano holds up well — and survives the intrusive close-up camerawork of the ‘Live in HD’ transmission
Houston Grand Opera commissioned Cruzar la Cara de la Luna from composer José “Pepe” Martínez, music director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, who wrote the text together with Broadway and opera director Leonard Foglia. The work had its world premier in 2010. Since then, it has traveled to several cities including Paris, Chicago, and San Diego.
“Why should I go to hear Plácido Domingo” someone said when Verdi’s I due Foscari was announced by the Royal Opera House. There are very good reasons for doing so.
Music Theatre Wales presented the world premiere of Philip Glass’s The Trial (Kafka) last night at the Linbury, Royal Opera House. Music Theatre Wales started doing Glass in 1989. Their production of Glass’s In the Penal Colony in 2010 was such a success that Glass conceived The Trial specially for the company.
To say that the English Concert’s performance of Handel’s Alcina at the Barbican on 10 October 2014 was hotly anticipated would be an understatement. Sold out for weeks, the performance capitalised on the draw of its two principals Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote and generated the sort of buzz which the work did at its premiere.
Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its sixtieth anniversary season with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni directed by Artistic Director of the Goodman Theater, Robert Falls.
It was a little over two years ago that I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the Berlioz Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral; it was the last time I heard — or indeed saw — him conduct his beloved and loving London Symphony Orchestra.
Part of their Liberty or Death season along with Rossini’s Mose in Egitto and Bizet’s Carmen, Welsh National Opera performed David Pountney’s new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (seen 4 October 2014).
Welsh National Opera’s production of Rossini’s Mose in Egitto was the second of two Rossini operas (the other is Guillaume Tell) performed in tandem for their autumn tour.
In Monteverdi’s first Venetian opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1641), Penelope’s patient devotion as she waits for the return of her beloved Ulysses culminates in the triumph of love and faithfulness; in contrast, in L’incoronazione di Poppea it is the eponymous Queen’s lust, passion and ambition that prevail.
After the triumphs of love, the surprises: Les Paladins, under their director Jérôme Correas, and soprano Sandrine Piau are following their tour of material from their 2011 CD, ‘Le Triomphe de L’amour’, with a new amatory arrangement.
At the ENO, Puccini's La fanciulla del West becomes The Girl of the Golden West. Hearing this opera in English instead of Italian has its advantages, While we can still hear the exotic, Italianate Madama Butterfly fantasies in the orchestra, in English, we're closer to the original pot-boiler melodrama. Madama Biutterfly is premier cru: The Girl of the Golden West veers closer, at times, to hokum. The new ENO production gets round the implausibility of the plot by engaging with its natural innocence.
Presenting a well-structured and characterful programme, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci demonstrated her prowess in both soprano and mezzo repertoire in this Wigmore Hall recital, performing European works from the early years of the twentieth century. Assuredly accompanied by her regular pianist Donald Sulzen, Antonacci was self-composed and calm of manner, but also evinced a warmly engaging stage presence throughout.
Bold, bright and brash, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Il barbiere di Siviglia tells its story clearly in complementary primary colours.
Bampton Classical Opera’s 2014 double bill neatly balanced drollery and gravity. Rectifying the apparent prevailing indifference to the 300th centenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck birth, Bampton offered a sharp, witty production of the composer’s Il Parnaso confuso, pairing this ‘festa teatrale’ with Ferdinando Bertoni’s more sombre Orfeo.
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra launched the Wigmore Hall’s two-year series, ‘Purcell: A Retrospective’, in splendid style. Flexibility, buoyancy and transparency were the watchwords.
It would be unfair, but one could summarise this concert with the words, ‘Senator, you’re no Leonard Bernstein.’
On September 13, Los Angeles Opera opened its 2014-2015 season with a revival of Marta Domingo’s updated, Art Deco staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. It starred Nino Machaidze as Violetta, Arturo Chácon-Cruz as Alfredo, and Plácido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. The conductor was Music Director James Conlon.
In its annual concert previewing the forthcoming season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its “Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park” during the past weekend to a large audience of enthusiastic listeners.
Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
The first performance of Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred took place at Clivedon House on the Thames near Maidenhead, in August 1740.
Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II, had married in 1736 but, rebellious and alienated from his parents, when his wife became pregnant, Frederick concealed the fact. At the last moment, the Princess of Wales was rushed to St James’s Palace, where no preparations had been made, and gave birth to a daughter, almost as soon as the King and Queen knew a grandchild was on the way. The little girl was known as Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, and for her third birthday, or rather one day later on 1 August 1740, her father arranged a grand entertainment in the garden of Cliveden consisting of two masques and some pantomime scenes, all performed by the best London professionals that money could buy. The entertainments were enjoyed by such a throng of society guests that they had to be repeated on the following night — when a rainstorm drove everyone indoors, and Alfred had to be finished in the Hall.
In the eighteenth century, the characters and storyline of a masque would be familiar to all with a knowledge of classical mythology. The early-eighteenth century was a ‘classical age’, in which assumptions were seldom challenged, and people believed that their way of life and artistic tastes were not a passing phase but, in the words of the great English historian, G.M. Trevelyan, “permanent habitations, the final outcome of reason and experience. Such an age does not aspire to progress though it may in fact be progressing, it regards itself not as setting out but as having arrived …And therefore the men of this ‘classical’ age looked backed with a sense of kinship to the far-off ancient world. The upper class regarded the Greeks and Romans as honorary Englishmen, their precursors in liberty and culture.”*
Thus, Alfred, ostensibly set in the distant ninth century and telling the story of maurading, godless Danes who met their match in Alfred, a scholarly and benevolent ruler, had significant contemporary relevance, obvious no doubt to all of Frederick’s guests. For, just as the legendary King Alfred sought refuge in a country refuge, from whence he launched the freeing of his nation, so Frederick resided in his rural retreat, estranged from his father, waiting for the day when his values of liberty and honour would prevail and ‘free’ his nation.
At the time of Alfred’s composition, inventions in the masque form were acceptable if they were fairly mild in character; sometimes they may have been barely intentional, and thus Arne, though he transformed English opera in the 1740s-60s, may scarcely have been conscious of his originality, being more concerned to ‘recapture the past’ than to forge new paths into the future.
In fact, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778) was the most important figure in the world of English theatre music in the middle part of the eighteenth century, fighting vehemently for the cause of native creativity at a time when the fashion for foreign culture prevailed. With a brilliant gift for melody, Arne was able to turn his hand to the whole range of theatre music, from incidental music and comic 'afterpieces', to complex masques and opera seria on the scale of those by his great rival, Handel.
Alfred has the innovation of both spoken dialogue and a historical plot. At this time, James Thomas, the author of The Seasons, was receiving an allowance from Frederick — much needed for only shortly before he had been languishing in a debtors’ prison! Anxious to raise the literary level of the masque, Arne found in Thomas a poet of merit. Arne may well have been looking back to the Purcellian masque with his deployment of spoken dialogue but at the same time, it may also have conveniently excused him from the obligation to write ‘dramatic music’, in recognition that his compositional gifts were primarily lyrical. In this performance by Bampton Classical Opera, the text was narrated crisply by Bampton director Jeremy Gray; the transitions between spoken and sung text were swift and wholly convincing, effectively binding the individual numbers into a fluent narrative.
Originally Alfred and his wife, Eltruda, were non-singing parts; the airs were sung by the two shepherds, Corin and his wife Emma, and by the Spirit, sung originally by Mrs Arne — aka Cecilia Young, one of the foremost sopranos of the age. Presented in a bewildering number of versions in its day, textually Alfred is one of the most confused of all eighteenth-century ‘operas’. Arne continued to revise and reshape it, composing up to seventy numbers in all. Many of the revisions were pragmatic: initially scored with great lavishness, it was subsequently impossible to accommodate the work in any of the London playhouses, and therefore economising modification was necessary. None of the music was published for more than a decade after the first performance, and then only in much altered form. Bampton Classical Opera first tackled the work in 1998, giving what may have been the first fully-staged performance since the eighteenth century. On this occasion, they presented excerpts from the 1753 version, in which the dialogue was reduced to a minimum.
Alfred is a stirring tale of Anglo-Saxon warfare and rustic love, complete with ‘an offstage British victory of overwhelming proportions’. The music may be unfamiliar, but it was pleasing to see several Bampton ‘regulars’ return for this performance. The dramatic focus and musical accuracy of Corin’s opening solo air, ‘Though to a desert Isle confin’d’, sung with confident assurance by Mark Chaundy, flowed naturally to the Trio ‘Let not those who love, complain’, in which the voices of Joana Seara, Serena Kay and John-Colyn Gyeanty blended perfectly with the instrumental support. Having recently performed the Count in Bampton’s 2010 The Marriage of Figaro by Marcos Portugal, Gyeanty employed his flexibile, warm tenor with admirable control in the eponymous hero’s beautiful air, ‘From the Dawn of early Morning’, displaying an array of colours and dispatching the rapid scalic runs with aplomb. Making effective use of pianissimo, he shaped the phrases gracefully and projected the words clearly. As Edward (performed in 1753 by the renowned castrato, Guadagni), Kay brought dramatic energy to her air, ‘Vengeance, O come, inspire me!’, while Seara delivered Eltruda’s ‘Gracious Heav’n, O hear me!’ with precision and finesse. Ilona Domnich was a bright, clear shepherdess, Emma, and also sang the Spirit’s air with directness and assurance, adeptly capturing the mood of the situation.
‘Rule Britannia’ — a ‘Grand Ode in Honour of Great Britain’ — ends the work. Dynamic instrumental playing from the Bampton Classical Players accompanied King Alfred’s and Queen Eltruda’s prayer that our shores be protected from foreign invasion, a prayer which, for all its modern ‘vainglory’, expresses not unreasonable sentiments for a constantly invaded island in the ninth century, and had topical relevance for 1740. Brilliantly scored for oboes, bassoons, trumpets, drums and strings, it was an overnight sensation on its first performance, and was soon sung everywhere; in 1742 the full score was published as an appendix to Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, a work which was undoubtedly influenced by Sammartini’s Judgement of Paris also given at Cliveden in the summer of 1740.
At the time it was felt that ‘masque’ was not the appropriate category for Alfred, and it was later advertised as a serenata, an opera, and even an oratorio. Similarly, while Arne’s The Judgement of Paris — an irreverent account of the famous mythological beauty contest which led to the Trojan War — was also described as a masque when first performed at Drury Lane on 12 March 1742, there is no spoken dialogue and it is effectively a one-act opera for five soloists and chorus.
Bampton Classical Opera certainly made a strong case for its dramatic as well as musical merits. Conductor Benjamin Bayl deftly captured the character of the piece, inspiring vigorous playing from the period instrumental orchestra and drawing out the distinctive woodwind colourings in particular numbers. Tempi were well chosen and the recitatives sustained forward momentum.
Gyeanty’s even legato and sensitivity to the text were again in evidence in Paris’s air, ‘I faint, I fall’, as he used changes of pace and rich ornamentation to convey drama and emotion. Mark Chaundy’s light voice and superb breath control aptly conveyed the swift airiness of Mercury in ‘Fear not, mortal, none shall harm thee’; and the two men enjoyed the joyful jauntiness of their duet, ‘Happy thou of human race’.
Arne’s music for the three goddesses is nicely differentiated. Serena Kay presented a powerful, athletic impression of Pallas in ‘O what joys does conquest yield’, an elaborate, full-scale Italianate da capo aria, which also drew fine playing from the oboes, trumpets and drums. In contrast, Joana Seara emphasised the steadfastness of Juno in a simple strophic air, ‘Let ambition fire the mind’. In Venus’s ‘Nature framed thee sure for Loving’, Ilona Domnich floated the high notes sweetly, while the two violins enjoyed their dialogue and echo effects. Venus’s first air, ‘Hither turn thee gentle swain’, includes a delightful cello obbligato, here beautifully played by Natasha Kraemer. It leads to an amusing ‘rivalry trio’ for the three goddesses; Kay, Seara and Domnich clearly relished the gentle humour as Pallas and Juno take turns to ironically adapt the first line of Venus’s preceding air.
This may have been a concert performance, but the singers were uniformly effective in conveying not just character but dramatic relationships and momentum. Indeed, the stage directions, reproduced in the programme, describe the moment when Paris sees the three goddesses, who then descend briskly from the sky on mechanical contraptions — a useful reminder of the theatrical origins of the work.
Once again, Bampton Classical Opera not only brought justly deserving but little known repertoire to a highly appreciative audience’s attention, but performed it with commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment. In so doing, the company made a strong and convincing case for both the musical and the dramatic potential of these early English ‘operas’.
* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History: 3 (The Eighteenth Century), Pelican, pp.85-6.