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.
On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
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.