23 Jun 2011
Peter Grimes, Covent Garden
Willy Decker’s production of Peter Grimes, first seen at Covent Garden in 2004, should perhaps be renamed The Borough.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Willy Decker’s production of Peter Grimes, first seen at Covent Garden in 2004, should perhaps be renamed The Borough.
For in this reading, it is Britten’s powerful choruses which really excite and dominate: a frightening embodiment of Victorian moral hypocrisy and viciousness, the grey-costumed mob ebb and flow, an amorphous mass exerting an oppressive and irresistible moral force.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this reading, for Britten’s opera contains astonishingly virtuosic ensembles which erupt in Verdian climaxes. Think of the intricate polyrhythms of the shanty, ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, where the lop-sided 7/4 tempo aptly conveys the community’s struggle both to resist the storm raging outside the tavern and to quell the disturbances caused by Grimes’ presence within. However, something of the rich diversity of the community, and thus of the opera’s colour palette, is lost. At times, the stage seems over-populated and the incessant movement can be messy and distracting; and, it’s hard for the colourful cast of minor roles to emerge with clarity from the crowd. Even in the Prologue, when Grimes is called to account for the apprentice’s death, Matthew Best’s Swallow struggled to contain the baying throng and to assert his authority despite his well-focused voice and confident stage manner.
Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley
Some of the cast did manage to rise above the multitudes. Roderick Williams was an engaging Ned Keene, his warm tone and lyricism often suggesting a less antagonistic attitude towards Grimes – a much needed counterpoint to the pack’s pitiless cruelty. Martyn Hill’s Rector came effectively to the fore without strain, while Balstrode’s sincerity and authority was well captured by Jonathan Summers. Although Decker’s Mrs Sedley lapses into caricature, Jane Henschel cleverly suggested the latent power she exerts; seated stony-faced at the front of the stage, impervious to the taunts and ridicule of the drinkers in the tavern scene, she later becomes the driving force behind the persecution, leading the community in the unquestioning conformity. Moreover, in an unusually striking presentation of these minor female roles, Auntie (Catherine Wyn-Rodgers) and her two Nieces (Rebecca Bottone and Anna Devin) provided a welcome splash of visual and vocal colour in the tavern scene.
Amanda Roocroft tried hard to inject some warmth and tenderness into what is a rather severe interpretation of Ellen Orford, the village school mistress who yearns to save Grimes from the Borough’s tyranny and from his own inner demons. In a typically strong characterisation, Roocroft was imposing in the face of the community’s onslaught and criticism, using lyricism to oppose their callousness. However, dramatic strength was sometimes achieved at the expense of clear diction and musical accuracy, and an overly wide vibrato at times resulted in a slightly unfocused tone.
Prologue, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes
But, the real problem with this production is that the fate of its protagonist is never in doubt. There is not ‘conflict’ so much, between the outsider and the community, as total alienation. Estranged and unapproachable from the start, distressingly obsessed with the child’s coffin when Ellen tries to call him away, this Grimes is totally isolated and impossible to ‘save’: in Act 3 he simply covers his head (mimicking his apprentice’s earlier gesture of fear) when Ellen and Balstrode attempt to reach out to him. However, the libretto avows his intent to earn enough money to marry Ellen – he wants to win her respect and not just her pity – and to win acceptance by the community: and, it is hard to believe in this declaration or to understand why anyone would want acceptance from this community.
Ben Heppner certainly conveyed Peter Grimes’ existential despair. He is clearly a victim, and his obvious guilt and remorse should earn our forgiveness. Yet even during his visionary soliloquies and angry counter-attacks, Heppner struggled to retain his place at the centre of the audience’s vision. Moreover, there were major vocal concerns. His duet with Ellen in the Prologue was marred by poor tuning and frequently, as in ‘What harbour shelters peace?’ where the soaring minor ninths recall the tentative optimism and yearning of the Prologue duet, the voice sounded gravelly and strained. Short fragmented phrases and a rough-hewn quality created a sense of breathlessness and unease, but there was no sense of Grimes’ inner lyricism.
(Left to Right) Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley, Roderick Williams as Ned Keene, Matthew Best as Swallow, Alan Oke as Bob Boles, Stephen Richardson as Hobson, Martyn Hill as Rector, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes
So many of Grimes’ numbers, originally designed to suit and enhance the vocal characteristics of Peter Pears, are mercilessly exposed; and in ‘The Great Bear’ Heppner could not control the floating head voice required. The descending scales, which convey the futility of Grimes’ hopes that he will turn the skies back and ‘begin again’, were woefully flat. Since so much of the drama is conveyed through harmonic conflicts and relationships, this was both musically dissatisfying and disrupted the dramatic arguments of the work.
These five performances at Covent Garden are dedicated to three recently deceased tenors, each of whom has stamped their own identity on a role defined for so long by Pears: Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Robert Tear. Neither Decker nor Heppner present us with a Grimes to challenge these forebears. Decker’s Grimes does not even look like a fisherman! More importantly, in this opera so much depends on ambiguity (‘perhaps you’re not to blame that the boy died’, says Balstrode): we look in horror but we understand, we shudder but forgive, and this delicate balance between opposing forces – dramatic and musical – needs to be sustained. Decker’s vision is powerful in its clarity but loses the dramatic tension that such ambiguity bestows.
Finally, it is a vigorously anti-religious production, a reading that is perfectly justified by the text and complements the Victorian updating. But, of Britten’s desire “to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea”, there is little acknowledgement – apart from some Turner-esque backdrops. As the curtain rises in Act 1, the orchestra paints a picture of the dawn labours of a community dependent on the sea: ripples in the clarinet depict the glitter of the rising sun on the tossing waves; a high, ornamented melody recreates the dips and dives of a soaring gull; surges in the brass announce the ocean’s threatening undercurrents. The chorus sing of the duties which draw the fishing families together in hardship, perseverance and solidarity. Decker presents us with a church congregation, literally singing from the same hymn sheet – but the rhythms are those to accompany the hauling of nets and the tugging of sails. Although this dramatic motif returns in a powerful gesture in the closing moments of the opera – as, defeated, Ellen reluctantly takes her place among the worshippers, covering her face with the hymn sheet, to erase her identity and resistance – it sits awkwardly with the musical drama.
(Left to Right) Alan Oke as Bob Boles, Jonathan Summers as Balstrode, Anna Devin as Second Neice, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes, Rebecca Bottone as First Neice, Roderick Williams as Ned Keene, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Auntie
John Macfarlane’s set is visually impressive; steeply raked walls and a tilted stage increasing the sense of claustrophobia and repressed chaos. And, conductor Andrew Davis certainly drives the pace incessantly forward with a real sense of urgency and passion, even if he does not always achieve the required fullness of texture and depth of resonance. But ultimately there are too many compromises, and the cast, especially Heppner, are not quite strong enough to make Decker’s vision convincing.