12 Jul 2011
Cendrillon, Royal Opera
Words, stories, books — the gateway to a world of fantasy in which anything is possible.
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.
Words, stories, books — the gateway to a world of fantasy in which anything is possible.
This is the starting point for Laurent Pelly’s vision of the Cinderella story — this, and the substantial faithfulness with which Massenet’s opera adheres to the original Perrault fairytale. The opening tableau is the opening pages of the Perrault, enlarged to wall-size; a small room soon grows into a bigger room, and a bigger room still. Soon, words are everywhere. As Lucette — the eponymous Cendrillon — falls sadly asleep in the middle of the first act, the stars come out — pin-pricks in the text on the wall, just where the dot of every ‘i’ should be. Next, ten or so Lucette-clones appear with lamps in their hands, as if making the stars dance, and thus the text begins to come literally to life.
Alice Coote as Le Prince Charmant
The clones turn out to be the pet spirits of Lucette’s Fairy Godmother, who get sent off to prepare Cendrillon’s gown and carriage and horses. Of course it is handy having ten singers and dancers running round the stage who look exactly like the heroine — an eminently practical way of ensuring that the real Cinders can be smuggled off unnoticed for her quick change.
The word-theme continues throughout, with Cendrillon’s carriage being made of the letters of the word “Carosse” (drawn by four dancers dressed as horses) and the giant golden gates of the palace being formed of the letters of the phrase “Les portes du palais”. Some would think this slavish, but I simply got a strong and comforting sense that Pelly has a real, affectionate love for this children’s tale.
The princesses at the ball were a grotesque array of cartoonish ladies in red, all with exaggerated shapes and figures (none more so than Cendrillon’s unpleasant stepmother and sisters, the former resplendent in what looked more like a piece of amply-upholstered furniture than a dress) and many looking like Grecian urns or elaborate topiary. If I hadn’t known that the production dates back to 2006 (in Santa Fe) I would have thought them a reference to the Queen of Hearts in the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Cendrillon is, after all, one of the few French 19th-century operas where a ballet scene fits nicely into the story without having to have an opportunity created for its existence, and it is telling that as I left the opera house at the end of the evening, I had strains of various divertissements from The Nutcracker floating through my mind along with snippets of Massenet.
If the visual inventiveness lapses in the early part of Act 3, all is restored in the curious ‘Fairy Oak’ scene (an invention of Massenet and his librettist) in which the stage is transformed into a rooftop scene (chimneys replacing the forest trees of the stage directions) which at first conjured up the chimney-sweep scene from Mary Poppins. But later a more apt comparison occurred to me; it’s the sort of scene generally seen from the garret window in La boheme. This is more relevant than you might think, as despite the supposedly fantastical context, it becomes one of the opera’s most genuinely human scenes, climaxing in a rapturous love duet in which the Prince’s voice joins Lucette’s in glorious unison before parting into harmony.
It was in this duet, and to a lesser extent their other scenes together, that the two stunning mezzo leads were showcased to best effect. The voices worked wonderfully well together — Joyce DiDonato’s tone sweet and soprano-like in the title role, and Alice Coote’s velvety, plush shades as an ardent Prince Charming. Individually of course they were just as good. Coote has plenty of experience in trouser roles, and not merely because of her voice type — her credibility as a hot-blooded youth is impeccable, evidently the result of meticulous observation. Meanwhile, DiDonato had a handful of high pianissimi which didn’t quite come off, despite the fact that the high-lying role generally seems to sit very comfortably in her voice, but she was a delightful heroine, making much of the understated, attractive music Massenet gives her.
Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon
DiDonato was equally touching in the scenes with her father, Pandolfe, sung by the French bass-baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont. Lafont makes much of the character, but his voice is evidently far beyond its peak, grating and wobbly.
In less distinguished company, the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś as Madame de la Haltière would have walked away with the entire show. Her lower register remains earth-shaking, but more to the point, she understands the critical importance of playing farce straight. Her final declamation of ‘Ma fille!’ — when she finally sees fit to acknowledge Lucette as a daughter — brought the house down.
Pelly generously makes this latter-day change of heart a result of an intervention by the Fairy, rather than a cynical acknowledgement ot Lucette’s sudden acquisition of status and glamour. And what an accomplished Fairy we had in the Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez. She is confident and ravishing in spinning high lines, and her trill is so impressive that I will forgive her the occasional intonation lapse in staccato coloratura. Her poised and alluring stage presence put me in mind of Tytania from Britten’s Dream; she was given a bit of an edge with a modern, spiky hairdo, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pair of customised Doc Marten boots under her lavish silver-grey ballgown.
Ewa Podleś as Madame De La Haltière
ROH Young Artists Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel were well-matched as the two stepsisters, Noémie and Dorothée; in the first scene (in which, incidentally, they appeared to be dressed as pastel-coloured lampshades) their diction was indistinct, but this improved as the evening went on.
Bertrand de Billy’s conducting, a couple of lapses in ensemble aside, had energy and sensitivity. But the Fairy clearly thinks she can do a better; atop a giant pile of books, like a Valkyrie calling from a mountain-top, she hijacks the task of conducting the final few bars to make quite, quite sure of her happy ending.
Ruth Elleson © 2011