29 Aug 2011
BBC Prom 55: Rinaldo
It’s becoming rather a fashion to set operas in English public schools.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
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.