07 Oct 2011
There are two ways to sing the role of Carmen: as a “grand opera” heroine and as a character from opéra-comique.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
There are two ways to sing the role of Carmen: as a “grand opera” heroine and as a character from opéra-comique.
The grand opera version requires a voluptuous dramatic mezzo voice with a menacing flash of steel and booming chest tones. This musical style lends itself to a dramatic portrayal of the gypsy as a dangerous, snarling man-eater—a tigress capable of drawing a knife on Don José, had he not drawn one on her first. In the end, this Carmen seeks to seduce us by overwhelming us. This ideal is approximated by Grace Bumbry, Maria Ewing, Marilyn Horne, and, though she is always unique, Maria Callas.
The second type of Carmen, which reflects Georges Bizet’s roots in the French opéra-comique, calls for a smaller, more lyrical voice with a gentler timbre, smooth projection, and precise attention to delicate inflections of language and line. On this view, the gypsy is not a tigress but (as the libretto says of love) a bird. This Carmen is less blatantly threatening than her dramatic twin, yet her flirtatious, exotic, distantly self-absorbed manner poses just as great a danger to our hearts. She seduces not by overpowering but by mesmerizing. This approach is taken by Victoria de los Angeles and Teresa Berganza.
Most who sing Carmen these days aspire to the dramatic ideal, but Rinat Shaham, Philadelphia’s choice, fits the lyric model. Shaham is a Haifa-born mezzo who trained at the local Curtis Institute, debuted with the company as Zerlina in 1994, and has sung the role of Carmen to acclaim in theaters across the world, notably Glyndebourne. Shaham’s voice is not enormous, but it is focused, possesses an attractive sheen, and is articulated very evenly top to bottom. She phrases with understatement, a virtue lamentably absent among modern-day Carmen’s. Some quieter moments were memorable: the interposed “L’amour” in the “Toreador Aria” comes to mind, as does the Act III (“card”) trio, which suits her lovely low notes and contemplative manner. With black curls, flashing eyes, and slender curves popping out of the corset all Carmen’s seem to wear these days, she cuts an alluring figure on stage—and on posters throughout Philadelphia.
The result was in many respects agreeable. Absent throughout, however, were musical-dramatic subtleties essential for a lyric portrayal of Bizet’s gypsy to aspire to artistic greatness: the delicate use of glissando, rubato, rhythmic accent, idiomatic diction, timbre and color, and phrasing through the line. The “Habanera” was deadened by breathiness and an unyielding tempo, whether the fault of the conductor or singer. Shaham seemed to focus in the “Seguidilla” more on movement than voice, concluding with a needlessly strident cry. In the final scene, Shaham did not—vocally speaking—push herself to the edge of either desperation or fatalism. Without the extra interpretive effort, the performance seemed much blander than this artist’s potential, let alone the very best historical counterparts.
David Pomeroy as Don Jose and Ailyn Perez as Micaela
Ailyn Pérez, the young Academy of Vocal Arts-trained soprano, posed a striking contrast as Michaëla. Pérez’s voice, pleasant and precise if slightly metallic, is no match for Shaham’s. Moreover, the plot turns in part on the obvious fact that neither the personality or music of Michaëla, the nice god-fearing girl from the country, can match that of Carmen. Yet Pérez imbued every line with creative imagination, especially the famous aria, where subtle dynamics, precise diction and firm sense of the where it was all going conjured up the evening’s most memorable moments and greatest applause.
Canadian tenor David Pomeroy made a solid Don José. Though his voice lacks the ring, precision or the sweetness some bring to the part, he phrased with intelligence and precision, improving as the night went on, and he looks the part of a proud, if unimaginative, Basque. Another young Curtis alum, Jonathan Beyer, cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, though his voice, though well-produced, is a bit less grand—a problem in a part where one wants to be overpowered by testosterone. Well-trained if uneven young voices, mostly the products of local institutions, appeared in the smaller roles.
The conducting by Philadelphia’s music director, Bergamo-born Corrado Rovaris, displayed what I have come to think are his characteristic strengths and weaknesses. He imbues performances with energy. The music moves along, and achieves a certain excitement in hard-driving, straight-forward passages—as in the famous Prélude. Yet the result can sound unimaginative where the score calls for flexibility, ambiguity, or shifts in mood.
Rinat Shaham (center) as Carmen, Tammy Coil (left) as Mercedes and Greta Ball (right) as Frasquita, with Jeremy Milner as Zuniga
Visually, the production by Allen Charles Klein cleaves to a formula that has helped to make opera in Philadelphia popular and financially solvent: a grand unit set in traditional style, accessorized for each act with different props, costumes, and lighting—the latter sometimes tending toward slightly garish blues and oranges, courtesy of Drew Billiau. Outside of Act I, none of this adds much atmosphere or insight, but the audience seems to enjoy it. The stage direction, by David Gately, follows the formulas of previous productions, but enlivens them with a few fine touches: several suggestions of Carmen as a caged animal and liberty with the libretto, whereby she never finds the second-act castanets, dancing the duet instead with the (usually discarded) pieces of cracked plate.