21 Sep 2011
Il Trittico, Covent Garden
What do a ferociously violent melodrama, an ecstatic spiritual revelation and an ironic black farce have in common?
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.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
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.
What do a ferociously violent melodrama, an ecstatic spiritual revelation and an ironic black farce have in common?
This is the question which faces directors and composers who determine to stage in its entirety Puccini’s infrequently performed triptych of one-act operas, Il Trittico.
Is there a ‘unifying factor’? Should one even attempt to look for one? Perhaps it is the contrasts between the Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi that produce maximum theatrical effect and musical impact?
Ermonela Jaho as Sister Angelica
Il Tabarro, in director Richard Jones’ and conductor Antonio Pappano’s conception builds effectively from the leaden, repetitive melancholy of the opening scenes to a central moment of passionate ecstacy before falling terrifyingly and inexorably to its shocking, vicious conclusion. That Pappano has a masterful appreciation of the Puccinian idiom and unsurpassed ability to match musical structure to dramatic denouement, is apparent from the first: the latent violence of the riverside community suggested by disturbing and startling surges in dynamic and melodic compass which disrupt the hypnotic rhythmic repetitions of the lapping waters.
Jones presents an appropriately naturalistic stage picture, designer Ultz delivering looming brick walls, narrow alleyways and grimy barges which depressingly conjure the colourless world of the stevedores, dockers and rag-pickers who work on or beside the Seine. Popular song melodies - Ji-Min Park’s (Song Seller) street ballad, Alan Oke’s (Tinca) drinking song — provide both realism and variety.
The bleakness is broken by the Giorgetta’s outburst of yearning, the soaring warmth of Eva-Maria Westbroek’s gleaming soprano, revealing the stark contrast between feminine ideals and dreams and the wretched reality of the enchained lives s of those who make their pitiful living from the river. She is joined by Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Luigi in a rapturous paean to romantic imaginings. The only unfortunate aspect of Westbroek’s performance was a tendency for her physically voluptuous movements and exhibitionism to remind one of her last ROH incarnation, another girl longing for the city lights, Anna Nicole.
Lucio Gallo as Michele and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Giorgetta
Antonenko’s Luigi possessed a masculine swagger which was matched by a lustrous tone; together they conveyed his commitment both to revolutionary ideals and to human love. After a slightly over-blown opening, Antonenko relaxed and revealed his huge vocal capacity and glossy warmth. His affecting and appealing sound were complemented by confident, convincing acting.
Michele was sung by Lucio Gallo, whose slightly dry vocal timbre and physical rigidity successfully communicated his resignation and endurance, before stoicism was finally overwhelmed by self-destructive bitterness and frustration.
The set was effective cast by evocative shadows, literal and metaphorical, capturing the grey misery which will ensue for all the protagonists. Lighting designer, D.M. Wood, exploited similarly sombre shades in Suor Angelica, to convey a quieter loneliness; while in Gianni Schicchi contrasting flashes of brightness and darkness suggested the deceitful twists and turns of the plotting relatives.
Suor Angelica presents another enclosed world, but here the desire to escape is not represented by an aspiration to return to the bright lights of Paris in search of earthly pleasures, but rather by a longing to transcend earthly preoccupations and discover eternal salvation and bliss. The Catholic message perhaps has little resonance with many modern opera-goers and Jones has made a brilliant decision to replace religious institutionalism with secular rituals, to dispense with convents and cloisters in favour of the hospital ward of a children’s hospital, the nuns exchanging their habits for the uniforms of a nursing order. The re-location is inspired, and wonderfully realised in Miriam Buether’s arresting set.
Anna Larsson as The Princess
In the title role, Albanian Ermonela Jaho, making her debut in the role after replacing German soprano Anja Harteros at short notice, did not always surmount the rich orchestral fabric, but her sound is attractive, and she often attained the requisite long-phrased melodicism.
In the libretto, recognising that her decision to commit suicide is a mortal sin, Angelica is overcome with guilt and prays for salvation; she is rewarded with a redemptive final vision of the Virgin Mary and her son, before she dies, presumably transfigured. Jones replaces this spiritual vision with a more mundane one: immobile, Angelica stares piercingly, transfixed by one of the young boys she has been nursing, a painful reminder of her own loss and culpability. Some critics have accused Puccini’s religious apotheosis of vulgarity and tastelessness, but in Jones’ hands, any sense of kitsch Catholicism is transformed into a tragic realism more commonly associated with Il Tabarro. If Jaho tired slightly towards the close, this only served to emphasise that any notion of transfiguration is, in Jones’ eyes, delusory.
As Angelica’s harridan aunt, The Princess, Anna Larsson was suitably haughty and viciously Machiavellian. The scene in which she compels Angelica to acknowledge her shame (she has given birth to a child outside marriage), not to save her niece’s soul but to manipulate her into signing away her inheritance, was chillingly cruel; most effective too was the way in Buether re-configures the set, creating a separate corridor for the desolate struggle between the two women.
Upon learning of her son’s death, Jaho delivers her aria, ‘Senza mamma’, with disturbing concentration, although her physical trembling, while painfully affecting, did result in an unfortunately exaggerated vibrato.
From Left To Right - Rebecca Evans as Nella, Alan Oke as Gherardo, Francesco Demuro as Rinuccio, Robert Poulton as Marco, Elena Zilio as Zita, Gwynne Howell as Simone, Marie Mclaughlin as La Ciesca and Jeremy White as Betto Di Signa
Anna Devin, a Jette Parker Young Artist, had a busy evening, impressing in all three roles. Highly competent as Sister Genovieffa, and as one of the Lovers in Il Tabarro, she subsequently stood in for indisposed the Ekaterina Siurina as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. Elizabeth Woollett as the Nursing Sister and Eryl Royle (Sister Osmina) also pleased.
Pappano grasped the way in which the ritualistic repetitions of the score accrue emotional meaning, building to a concentrated lyricism of escalating intensity. The ROH orchestra was the embodiment of instrumental refinement, particularly in the orchestral intermezzo.
Lucio Gallo as Gianni Schicchi
However, the rushing chords which open Gianni Schicci — seen here in a revival of Jones’ 2007 staging — immediately swept aside the constrained ambience of the preceding opera, in a breathless dance of irony and wit.
For once Pappano perhaps didn’t quite always garner the requisite fleetness of foot but there was much zany zippiness, with visual humour provided by staging and costumes which recall the cardboard shabbiness of 1960s sit-com set.
The comic know-how of Gwynne Howells, returning to the role of Simone — one of the avaricious, grasping heirs of the declining Buoso Donati — provided some stability and focus among the comic capers. Rebecca Evans, making her debut in the role of Nella, relished the vulgarity of the role; while in the title role, Lucio Gallo seemed at times to find it hard to break free from the dark shadows of Il Tabarro, offering a sardonic but not ineffective interpretation.
Other strong performances came from Francesco Demuro, who demonstrated a fervent tone as Rinuccio — although in the set-piece, ‘Firenze è come un albero fiorito’ he perhaps tried a bit too hard — and Elena Zilio (Zita).
Ekaterina Siurina as Lauretta and Francesco Demuro as Rinuccio
So, is the whole triptych greater than the sum of its parts? In the final reckoning, it probably doesn’t matter either way: Jones and Pappano revealed the affective power of each of these three divergent and complementary works — no musical detail was overlooked, and each was made to cohere within an impressively paced whole, the varying spatial dimensions of each of the three operas perfectly judged. It truly was an evening when there was something for everyone.
Michele: Lucio Gallo; Giorgetta: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Luigi: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Tinca: Alan Oke; Talpa: Jeremy White; Frugola: Irina Mishura; Song Seller: Ji-Min Park; Lovers: Anna Devin, Robert Anthony Gardiner. Set Designs: Ultz. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.
Monitress: Elena Zilio; Two Lay Sisters: Melissa Alder, Kate Mccarney; Mistress of the Novices: Elizabeth Sikora; Sister Lucilla: Anne Osborne; Sister Osmina: Eryl Royle; Sister Genovieffa: Anna Devin; Sister Angelica: Ermonela Jaho; Nursing Sister: Elizabeth Woollett; Two Alms Sisters: Gillian Webster, Kathleen Wilder; Abbess: Irina Mishura; The Princess: Anna Larsson. Set Designs: Miriam Beuther. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.
Buoso Donati: Peter Curtis; Simone: Gwynne Howell; Zita: Elena Zilio; Rinuccio: Francesco Demuro; Betto di Signa: Jeremy White; Marco: Robert Poulton; La Ciesca: Marie McLaughlin; Gherado: Alan Oke; Nella: Rebecca Evans; Gerardino: Noah Scoffiedl; Gianni Schicchi: Lucio Gallo; Lauretta: Anna Devin; Maestro Spinelloccio: Henry Waddington; Ser Amantio di Nicolao: Enrico Fissore; Pinello: Daniel Grice; Guccio: John Molloy. Associate Director: Benjamin Davis. Set Designs: John Macfarlane. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Original Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin. Revival Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.
Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Director: Richard Jones.