27 Aug 2011
Caractacus,Three Choirs Festival, Worcester
Superb performance of Elgar’s epic oratorio Caractacus at the The Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral.
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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Superb performance of Elgar’s epic oratorio Caractacus at the The Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral.
The Three Choirs Festival was founded some 300 years ago, bringing together the choirs of three great cathedral cities — Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The Three Choirs epitomize all that is great and good about the English choral tradition. It’s a festival which no-one seriously interested in the genre can miss. The atmosphere is unique, and immeasurably enhances appreciation of the music.
Edward Elgar was very much part of the Three Choirs Festival. He attended without fail, and his music has figured prominently in every Festival for over 100 years. He was a Worcester man by birth, so it was a very special experience to hear this performance of Caractacus in Worcester Cathedral, where Elgar himself would have heard it.
Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called Caractacus. Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient fortifications can still be seen on its summit.
History co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time in Caractacus. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir. Right from the start, Elgar’s Caractacus begins defiantly. “The Roman hordes have girdled in our British coast”. Then Caractacus takes up the call. “Watchmen alert! The King is here!”. The Britons are facing a crisis situation, for soon Caractacus and his men will be taken as slaves to Rome and their ancient Druid religion gradually obliterated.
In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak. Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Romans Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. Hearing the truculence of this text makes one realize what a shock the 1914-18 war would be to Elgar, and to the certainties of Empire.
Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is exquisite, overcoming the often lugubrious text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?”
“The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature round is breathing balm O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground”. Peter Savidge’s firm intonation carries authority naturally, without being forced. His diction is so clear that it cuts through the choirs, decisively. He creates Caractacus’s character with warmth and sensitivity, more faithful, perhaps to the spirit of the Druids than to High Victorian arrogance. Just listening to Savidge, you can understand why Claudius, the Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Caractacus’s moral strength that he treated the Britons with respect. Savidge’s O my warriors! was expansive, yet surprisingly tender. Truly “a freeborn chieftain and a people free ...(whose) soul remains unshackled still”.”
Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor. Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia were superlative, technically brighter and sharper than the London Symphony Chorus were for Richard Hickox on their recording almost 20 years ago. Davis delineates the underlying themes so precisely that the music seems to come alive, whispering meaning much as the trees the Druids worshipped whispered meaning to them. Tight dynamics built drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid Victorian melodrama. When this performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 3rd September make sure to listen, because this is the new benchmark. Hopefully, a recording may be made available. Worcester, and the Three Choirs Festival are sacred ground to Elgar enthusiasts.
What makes the Three Choirs Festival unique, however, is the quality of the choral singing, which is the whole raison d’être behind this 300 year old tradition. Although at moments it wasn’t easy to make out all the text, the fault lies not with the voices nor with the choirmaster but with the text itself. English is a language which lends itself to vowels rather than consonants, so it’s easy to approximate vocally, which is why it’s near universal today. There were many Caractacus figures in Gaul and in the lands of the Franks, so in theory there might be similar works in French or German, but they’d sound completely different. The relative imprecision of English makes the Triumphal March sympathetic. The Britons are a ragged bunch of wild men, very different to the sophisticated Roman Court, yet they win out since Caractacus is a level-headed fellow.
Brindley Sherratt sang Claudius with such rich resonance that he brought out the depth in the Roman’s personality. The Romans may be the enemy, but Sherratt shows what a fundamentally civilized man Claudius is, for he can show mercy without compromising his power. Stephen Roberts Arch Druid/Bard was also deeply impressive. Judith Howarth reprised Eigen, Caractacus’s daughter. Her voice is in excellent form, still pure and sweet though it’s been 20 years since she sang it with Richard Hickox. In At eve to the greenwood she managed the sudden leap up the register with aplomb. Even better was her When the glow of the evening. Ben Johnson sang Orbin, the Druid whom Eigen is in love with. Johnson’s very young and this is a fairly demanding part, so he did very well indeed. His bright tone is matched by good Italianate looks and an expressive face which will stand him in good stead in opera.
This performance of Elgar’s Caractacus from the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 after the Proms end in mid September.