27 Oct 2011
Béatrice et Bénédict, Opera Boston
How is one to write a Romantic opera?
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.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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.
How is one to write a Romantic opera?
It is a question that Berlioz, to his frustration, never quite answered. In his youth, bel canto held the stage, and the tone was set by Rossini and Bellini; by his maturity, grand opera and its rather different conventions had taken over. How was a composer of the highest aspirations to structure a work that was to give rein to experience and perception? The reliable but chilly structures of the Baroque and the da capo aria, with its implied assurance that the world was to return to the given social order, just as the singer was bound to return to the first melody, were not going to prove satisfactory; the very different example of the opera-comique in France, with its bumptious mixture of popular entertainment and cultivated composition was, for a composer like Berlioz, little inspiration. The failures of Schubert’s Fierrabras and Schumann’s Genoveva as dramatic vehicles functioned as a kind of warning, and the silence of Brahms — his profound disinterest in writing for the stage — was instructive. Only Weber’s Freischutz, and, to a lesser extent, his Euryanthe and Oberon, established and retained places on the international stage, and in the allegiances of popular and learned auditors.
By the time Berlioz wrote Béatrice et Bénédict, he had endured a lifetime of frustration and misunderstanding in opera. No composer has ever loved drama more, or more instinctively, than Berlioz, yet he had the greatest difficulties — many self-imposed — in creating vehicles that played as drama. Benvenuto Cellini is a mess of color and action; La Damnation de Faust, despite recent efforts by the Metropolitan Opera, is almost inert dramatically; Les Troyens is a magnificent masterpiece, but long, unwieldy, and intermittently static. Beatrice and Benedict, which he wrote in the early 1860s, is an odd creation by almost any standard. The story, extracted by Berlioz himself from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is a light, almost eventless romantic comedy. The heart of Much Ado is a fundamentally misogynistic tale of deception and wronged virtue: Claudio is suborned by Don John into believing that his betrothed, Hero, has been untrue to him. These unhappy lovers, on their winding way back to the altar, are accompanied by the low-comedy antics of the local constabulary, and, most of all, by Hero’s cousin Beatrice and Claudio’s boon companion, Benedick, whose repeated slanging matches signal, to everyone but themselves, a deep underlying sexual tension and romantic affection. These two have long since crowded the disquieting principal plot, which is a story only an academic could love — as long ago as the 1630s, King Charles I titled his copy of the play Beatrice and Benedict. Berlioz simply discards all the pesky business — gone Don John, gone denunciations at the altar, gone Dogberry and the antics of the police; welcome a slight and forgettable bit of new business with a newly-devised character, the music-master Somarone (“Big Ass”). The trouble here is that without even a hint of shadow — all Claudio and Hero do is to egg their friends on, while the nuptials approach — there is very little narrative drive. It does not come as much of a surprise to learn that Berlioz planned the work as a one-act opera, and extended it; the music of the two-act version is consistently rewarding, but dramatically almost as inert as his Faust. Berlioz’s thinking here is orchestral, and almost symphonic — Béatrice et Bénédict is, arguably, a symphony or tone poem on themes from Shakespeare, with voices. As such, it is among Berlioz’s most appealing works: the duet-nocturne that closes the first Act, perfectly performed by Opera Boston, is arguably one of the most beautiful episodes in all of opera.
Julie Boulianne as Béatrice and Sean Panikkar as Bénédict [Photo courtesy of Opera Boston]
For all his superior mastery of more complex forms and ideas, Beethoven, Berlioz’s great musical model, could only wish he had written ten more beautiful minutes. Opera Boston, a laudable champion of the neglected and under-heard in opera, has essayed a fluent, elegant staging of Berlioz’s last stage work. The setting is still Sicily — or, that sort of neverland Shakespeare always evokes in his comedies — but resituated in a high-toned 1950s, complete with puffed skirts, bobs, and up-dos — you almost expect a poodle-skirt to sashay in. Designer Robert Perdziola’s set design is equally stylish — the capolavoro is perhaps the lifting of set’s back wall, mottle-painted to suggest aging stucco, to reveal a heart-stopping night sky and distant harbor. As Beatrice, Julie Boulianne has a fine mezzo-soprano voice, a little hard-toned in the upper reaches; Sean Panikkar as Benedict lacked a little polish and finish in tone. Heather Buck’s Hero was excellent at the top and bottom of her register, but a little elusive at times in the middle. Kelley O’Connor as Ursule almost stole the evening, with an arresting, dark-colored low-mezzo voice. Gil Rose’s orchestra offered a seamless and idiomatic reading of Berlioz’s tuneful score. Director David Kneuss, a long-time advocate of the work, decided on an odd hybridization of languages and styles — the sung score was heard in Berlioz’s French, the dialogue in English, in an adaptation that mixed Shakespeare, Berlioz’s own additions for the French-language premere in 1863, and what was apparently some of Kneuss’ own work. Although the result was not as jarring as might have been feared, why not go all the way in any one of these directions? Shakespeare, with minimal alterations? modern English for everything? French for all? Kneuss also did not entirely solve Berlioz’s dramaturgical problems, perhaps a thankless task on the best of days. Principals and chorus were frequently perfectly stationary in moments that, musically and dramatically, suggest movement (the opening of Act I; the drinking song in Act II) — but then, to be fair, Berlioz always had peculiar ideas about what constituted a party.
Finale [Photo courtesy of Opera Boston]
Beatrice and Benedict was not quite his last work — the Memoirs were to follow — but is arguably his last musical work of any importance. Like Verdi long after him, he said farewell to the stage, and to some degree to music, with comedy — and comedy from Shakespeare, at that. He lacked Verdi’s Boito — he had no librettist of genius to help shape the drama, and provide a loving but stern pair of eyes to look over the work. Why this work — and why this curious selection from Much Ado? Shakespeare had long been both his inspiration and his undoing; it was through Shakespeare that he found himself as a composer of genius, and it was through Shakespeare that he met Harriet Smithson, the English actress he loved and married. Their relationship declined into mutual loathing and recrimination — but in this bagatelle on Shakespearean themes, we see a merrily quarrelling couple, Beatrice and Benedict, whose loving combat never degrades into hatred. They are Hector and Harriet, without the depredations of age or misfortune. When it premiered, Verdi’s Forza del Destino opened in Imperial Russia; Offenbach’s Belle Helene was in preparation, and Meyerbeer’s Africaine was being completed; most of all, Wagner’s Walkure had just appeared at Bayreuth. Aesthetics very different from Berlioz’s, although perhaps similar in ambition, had arisen; yet this last and most polished and mature work from the pen of Berlioz deserved and deserves to be heard. Opera Boston’s commendable production, with its polished style and fine young singers, goes a long way toward keeping Berlioz’s music fresh and living for contemporary audiences.