28 Sep 2011
Faust, Royal Opera House
When the Royal Opera House London does things well, it does them very well indeed. This Gounod’s Faust was a sizzler!
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?
When the Royal Opera House London does things well, it does them very well indeed. This Gounod’s Faust was a sizzler!
A stellar cast — Angela Gheorghiu, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape and Dmitri Hvorostovsky — made this a sense of occasion, although the production, by David McVicar, was first seen in 2004. The performance worked well because there was good integration of all elements that contribute towards operatic experience — singing, staging, acting and orchestra. Following on from the superb Puccini Il trittico (reviewed here), it made for a spectacular start to the 2011/2 season at the Royal Opera House, London.
McVicar himself wasn’t present, but revival director Lee Blakely must have inspired the cast, for they were singing with great panache. Perhaps a little too much at times, for both Gheorghiu and Grigolo threw themselves so passionately into their parts that at times, there were weaknesses. But better this enthusiasm than technically note-perfect and dull. Faust and Marguerite don’t have Méphistophélès’s demonic powers, but they beat him in the end.
René Pape as Méphistofèlés
It was touching to see how genuinely happy Gheorghiu seemed to be when she comes upon the jewel box and forgets the studied froideur, with which she sang “The Song of the King of Thule.” If her diction wavers, it’s not entirely out of context. Gheorghiu’s Marguerite, despite the unflattering blonde wig, is sympathetic. Faust’s sacrificing love becomes altogether plausible.
Faust stretches Vittorio Grigolo vocally, but he compensates with expressive acting. His bright, exuberant timbre creates a Faust who’s hypnotized by the excitement of being young, a junkie to the thrill of new sensations. Thus he fits well with René Pape’s suave Méphistophélès. This opera is as much about social values as metaphysical struggle, so Pape’s sophisticated “French” urbanity may indeed be preferable. The humour in the plot, and the dogged cheerfulness in much of the orchestral writing indicates a lighter touch than obvious melodramatic malevolence.
Gounod’s long sequences for ballet are integral to the opera because, like the mercurial scene changes, they add sparkling wit. The witches in Walpurgis Night aren’t ugly crones but seductive ballerinas, who in this production have an orgy with the male patrons of the ballet. Just as Faust is tempted by sex, and Méphistophélès is repelled by Marthe (Carole Wilson)’s generous offer, so were audiences in Gounod’s time titilliated by tutus and dancers of easy virtue. These “witches” are free spirits of nature. Margeurite and Faust do what comes naturally. When Méphistophélès sings about “Reines de beauté, de l’antiquité”, Pape wears a woman’s black gown. Perhaps the reference is to Ortrud and her ancient gods, but more likely it connects to Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, temporarily usurped by Satan.
Angela Gheorghiu as Marguérite
Hence the creation of Siébel as trouser role (Michèle Losier,). Nothing is quite what it appears to be in this moral universe. Even the “sculpture” in the church turns out to be Méphistophélès in a marble-coloured cape.
There’s a similar logic to Gounod’s emphasis on the military.context. It’s great theatre and the rousing march “Gloire immortelle” is justly famous. It expands the part of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, for he symbolizes the moral force that stand up to Méphistophélè’s sensual wiles. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is luxury casting, and his big arias, especially the curse, were superbly dramatic. In this production, he also has to act a lot, both in the sword scenes and in the ballet, where now he’s one of the undead, and is tempted. Macabrely, by the dancers. Perhaps Valentin doesn’t have to be.young, but Valentin’s naivety is so much a part of the role that we should cherish Hvorostovsky while we can.
Stage designs, by Charles Edwards are sumptuous, but as usual, his designs “act” amplifying themes in the drama. Town transforms to church then to the Harz mountains and to the Théâtre Lyrique, as mercurially as Méphistophélès can transport Faust through time and place. Spartan gloom to gorgeous luxury to desolation, like Faust’s life. Marguerite’s redemption seems even more miraculous. There’s no need to lift her up to the ceiling. Gheorghiu lies still, lit in pristine simplicity.
So much in this opera depends on the orchestra and the choruses, and this we had in abundance. Evelino Pidò first conducted at the Royal Opera House in 1993, His experience and focus pulled all the elements of the performance together extremely well.
For more information, please see the Royal Opera House website.