12 Sep 2011
Munich’s Dialogues des Carmélites
Dialogues des Carmélites is a magnificently anti-operatic opera.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Dialogues des Carmélites is a magnificently anti-operatic opera.
It requires little in the way of vocal prowess or even acting ability, though a great Old Prioress (such as Rita Gorr, whom I once saw in Toronto) can make her death scene a thing of terrible beauty. Much of the musical and dramatic weight falls not on the characters or even the situations but on verbal formulae—sometimes poor ones (God tries not your strength but your weakness), sometimes ones worth pondering a little (what we call chance is just God’s logic), sometimes ones of some profundity (you might wind up dying someone else’s death by mistake—an idea that touches the heart of one of the mysteries of the faith, the divine surrogacy, Christ as vicar). Poulenc may have been more interested in these thoughts than in incising characters: they’re all prophetesses, though one, the Old Prioress,, is a sibyl as tyrant, and another, Sister Constance, is a sibyl as cheerleader, and the heroine, Sister Blanche, is a sibyl as nervous wreck. Indeed the opera has something in common with another religious opera, the Stein / Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts, with its interchangeable throng of saints—Stein said her inspiration was a series of photos of a novice turning into a nun, not far from the plot of Poulenc’s opera.
This production opens on a empty grayish-blue space, in which Blanche de la Force and her father and brother converse in modern clothes—here, the secular world is simply a desert. The convent, on the other hand, is a place, a screened bare room lit with electric lights strung from bare wires. The director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, springs his first major surprise here: there are no Christian emblems anywhere; and the ostentatiously dowdy modern dress, coupled with the fact that Poulenc’s text came from a screenplay that Georges Bernanos wrote in 1949, makes you wonder if there might be something about Jews and Nazis in the director’s mind. On the other hand, there are no Jewish emblems either.
It is fascinating to watch how this tease plays out. There are two occasions when it is impossible to ignore Christian visual elements: one is when the soldiers (dressed in generic police costumes, though with German lettering on their shoulder patches) order the nuns to doff their habits (Mother Marie strips to her bra at this point); and another when an effigy of the infant Jesus is passed around (a putto doll with a sunburst around his head, neither Christian nor unchristian).
The matter isn’t settled completely until the prison turns out to be full of cylinders of poison gas, a disappointingly obvious touch, I thought. And the final scene is comically outrageous, on the level of Ken Russell’s firing off a hydrogen bomb at the end of Madama Butterfly: Sister Blanche, far from joining the nuns in their Farewell Symphony Salve regina, as they’re executed one by one, breaks down the door, saves her gasping sisters from death, and perishes in an explosion. And yet: Poulenc borrowed the music for this intensely moving final scene from a strange orchestral piece he wrote in 1937, Deux marches et un intermède, in which the first piece is labeled “Marche” (1889) and contains a dainty quotation from The Nutcracker, and the second is labeled “Marche” (1937) and is all harrow. So, Poulenc may have considered his music pertinent to the difficult political situation of a harrowing age.
Kent Nagano’s conducting is even finer than in his audio recording, gesturally intent to the highest degree. None of the singing seemed to deserve special comment, except for Susan Gritton’s Blanche, by turns sweet-voiced and heady and hysterical, and yet with a sort of implacability in the background, like the calm at the center of Blanche’s storm.