12 Jul 2011
Cendrillon, Royal Opera
Words, stories, books — the gateway to a world of fantasy in which anything is possible.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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