29 Aug 2011
BBC Prom 55: Rinaldo
It’s becoming rather a fashion to set operas in English public schools.
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.
It’s becoming rather a fashion to set operas in English public schools.
First there was Christopher Alden’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ENO, and now Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne earlier this season, and presented in a semi-staged version by Bruno Ravella at the Albert Hall.
I found this production both troublesome and intriguing, at times conceptually irritating but always musically satisfying.
The distractions began during the overture, when the grace and elegance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the sensuous baton of Ottavio Dantone was rather brutally shattered by schoolboy tussles, as a gang of bullies sought to deprive the hapless Rinaldo of his cherished portrait of his beloved, Almirena, that he has secretly stashed in his school-desk.
At times, such distractions became more destructive, undermining plot and characterisation. It’s hard to be a convincing Crusading hero when you’re encumbered by an outsize satchel, have your bottom spanked by a sadistic schoolmarm, and, rather than a chariot and steed, your transport into battle is a bicycle with a dodgy headlamp and a puncture. And, it’s even worse when you don’t even get the chance to draw your sword to defend your true love against the dastardly forces of your evil enemy, because you’re too busy ‘making hay’ behind the bike sheds with the innocent lass to notice you’re surrounded.
Costumes, and props, were deliberately disconcerting but proved confusing. Uniformed schoolboys clashed with turban-clad Arabs — were we supposed to imagine Western involvement in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts? And, one doesn’t usually find flashing scimitars and lacrosse sticks clashing as weapons on the same field of war. A PVC-clad dominatrix towering in her Louboutins; academic big-wigs in gowns and mortars; demure pinafores; gleaming bronze breastplates: nothing quite added up. In Afghanistan, they hide suicide bombs under their burkas; here, Armida’s female ‘press gang’ whisked off their shapeless hide-alls to reveal the hitched skirts and up-turned colours of the St. Trinian’s elite, a veritable harem of lacrosse-swinging ladettes.
Never mind. There were some deft directorial and visual touches: projected images and text — declarations and prophecies — were atmospheric and tartly informative respectively. And, the light comic ambience wryly emphasised the mixture of fairytale, fantasy and romance which the opera embraces. If one closed one’s eyes, great delights awaited.
Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo may have been a little underpowered to begin with, but she exhibited genuine musical intelligence and vocal stamina in shaping and sustaining this role. Her sweet, warm tone was matched by the breathtaking ease with which she despatched the coloratura challenges — surely Handel didn’t intend to look and sound that easy! The Act 1 ‘Caro sposa’ was superb. Given the formal stature of the aria, Prina had the sense to begin with understatement, the stillness of the long unfolding lines hinting at despair without over-dramatising. The vocal line was effectively reinforced by plaintive strings: a gentle walking bass coloured by affective gestures in the upper strings. Using text repetition and musical sequence to slowly build up emotional energy, Prina exquisitely and touchingly revealed Rinaldo’s torment.
Varduhi Abrahamyan demonstrated how to deliver recitative meaningfully, as Goffredo, and her arias were characterised by evenness of line and some impressive breath control. As Armida, Brenda Rae seemed to relish the raunchiness of the role a trifle too much to begin with, forgetting to focus on the music itself; leaps were a little insecure in her opening aria and at the top her brightness was occasionally tinged with shrillness. But, she settled down when she realised that she could easily project into the vast hall, growing in confidence and elegance throughout the performance.
Anett Fritsch’s soothing lower register was ideal for the placid, tender Almirena, and she blended meltingly in her duets with Rinaldo. Countertenor Tim Mead made a strong musical and dramatic impression as Eustazio, with vivid vigorous articulation and notable precision in the coloratura decorations. His is a truly appealing sound.
Most impressive of all was Luca Pisaroni’s Argante: unforced power and roundness of tone, combined with vocal flexibility and dexterity and an ability to perceive and convey psychological depth and complexity. While initially, his strength and heft suggested the weight of his grievance and desire for vengeance, he was also able to engage the audience’s sympathy, as in ‘Vieni, o cara, a consolarmi’, where he acquired a convincing gravity and sincerity.
This was a relaxed, nuanced interpretation by conductor Ottavio Dantone. He crafted an effortless flow between numbers, recitative naturally unfolding into aria and back again. Sensuous, at times almost dancing, then seated to direct the recitative from the keyboard, Dantone’s light, airy gestures clearly communicated profound intention and meaning to players. Details were highlighted, dynamics and articulation varied without succumbing to mannerism, and an extraordinary variety of moods was captured.
Thus, Goffredo’s ‘No, no che quest’alma’ was marked by some truly exciting string playing which significantly contributed to the drama, as the players entered into dialogue with vocal line. Elsewhere they unleashed a scurrying viciousness, as in Armida’s ‘Furie terribili’. The woodwind were no less striking. A trilling sopranino recorder charmingly evoked the tweeting birds in Almirena’s ‘Augelletti’ (so, why, oh why, did we need trite recorded birdsong, when Handel has written the idyllic twitterings into the score?). And, stunningly busy bassoon playing in Rinaldo’s ‘Venti, turbine, prestate’ characterised the winds and whirlwinds that our hero calls upon to give him strength. I fear some of the instrumental subtleties may have been lost in various places in the auditorium: the theorbo scarcely penetrated where I was seated.
So, despite the visual irritations, there was much to enjoy and admire. Composing in haste, economically filching much material from his own works, perhaps Handel did not fully engage with the implications of the text, but instead, hoping to win over London audiences to the new Italian opera seria style, presented a score containing some of his most exquisite numbers. However, as Anne Ozorio noted in her 13th July review of the Glyndebourne performance, while there is much humour in the work, “its deeper levels would not have been lost on baroque audiences. Handel, through Torquato Tasso, is also obliquely mocking the futility of war and power games”. The problem is that Carson’s perspective, which perhaps does seek to illuminate the naivety and irresponsibility of the Crusaders, ultimately trivialises the work; playground japes — football fun with a giant globe, sword fights with hockey sticks — just don’t sit comfortably with the epic scope of the original libretto, drawn from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata.