Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Adriana Lecouvreur Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

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.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

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.

Rossini is Alive and Well and Living in Iowa

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.

Gergiev : Janáček Glagolitic Mass, BBC Proms

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.

Donizetti and Mozart, Jette Parker Young Artists Royal Opera House, London

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.

Glyndebourne's Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, BBC Proms

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.

Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival

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.

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

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.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

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.

Winterreise and Trauernacht at the Aix Festival

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.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

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: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘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.

Nabucco at Orange

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.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

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.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

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.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

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.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

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?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sara Mingardo as Penelope [Photo by Lucie Jansch ]
23 Oct 2011

Intertwining facets of Italian High Baroque

‘Erotic oratorio’ is the odd-sounding definition devised by modern scholars, such as Howard E. Smither, for those pious music dramas employing sex-laden plots from the Bible, the Apocrypha or the lives of Saints in order to give the audience moral instruction in a quasi-operatic, if generally unstaged, form.

Antonio Draghi: Oratorio di Giuditta
Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria

See body of review for cast lists

Above: Sara Mingardo as Penelope [Photo by Lucie Jansch ]

 

Judith, Esther, Delilah, Bathsheba, Mary Magdalen, Saint Cecilia, Saint Agatha and their companions were the favorite heroines of those stories, inasmuch their feminine charms, and their dangerous influence on men’s behavior, were often graphically described in the librettos.

frontesp_Giuditta_PARTIT.pngManuscript title page of Oratorio di Giuditta © Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

La vedova generosa [The Generous Widow] is the recently identified subtitle for Giuditta, one among the several dozens oratorios written by the Rimini-born composer Antonio Draghi (1634/35-1700) for the Habsburg imperial court at Vienna. One may scent therein a tribute to Draghi’s generous employer, the empress dowager Eleonora Gonzaga, whose musical household in Vienna was second only to that of her stepson, the music-avid (and amateur composer) emperor Leopold I. Both Eleonora and Leopold were devout Roman Catholics, much Italianate in their taste for music drama. Besides opera proper, they invested a good amount of their time and financial resources on oratorios, a musical entertainment originally devised by St. Philip Neri to keep people off the dangerous enticements of secular theaters, but soon transformed into a “perfect spiritual melodrama”, as abate Arcangelo Spagna, a theorist, put it in 1706.

Thus the subject of Judith, the ‘generous’ Jewish widow who delivered her people from the Assyrian chieftain Holofernes by means of unorthodox sexual warfare, could not escape Eleonora’s attention, nor the one of an ambitious court composer. Just months after the premiere performance, which arguably took place some time between Lent 1668 and Lent 1669, Draghi was promoted from the Empress’ to the Emperor’s service, with a substantial raise in his salary.

Oratorio di Giuditta2_crediti Fabiana Rossi.pngRimini, Ensemble Seicentonovecento in Draghi’s Giuditta [Photo by Fabiana Rossi]

So much for the historic background. As to the music itself, Draghi’s Giuditta stands mid-way between the earlier, Cavalli-style, Venetian opera and the progressive Neapolitan school launched by Alessandro Scarlatti during the following decade. The prevailing syllabic recitative is largely peppered with elaborate florid passages, and most cadenzas soar to eloquent ariosos in triple time, sometimes with a dance-like lilt. Although just two numbers are formally labeled “aria” in the manuscript score, there are actually a few more. While only the final ensemble for the four soloists (Judith, her maid Abra, Holofernes and the Narrator) brings the caption “da capo”, two arias for Abra - somewhat of a comic character - are clearly set in the the ‘modern’ ternary form A-B-A`, a daring experiment for the times. However, the centerpiece is a long and articulate conversation scene between Holofernes and Judith, totalling nearly one fourth of the entire work. It’s a red-hot skirmish between the lusty chieftain and his would-be victim; the former voicing his desire enhanced by heavy drunkennes, the latter pretending to reciprocate but determined to cut his head as soon as he falls asleep.

Every manner of compositional devices are employed here, from secco recitative, through arioso, to outright aria (particularly compelling is “In dolce calma” for Holofernes, accompanied by a pair of gambas). Minutes before accomplishing her brave deed, Judith fulfills the dearest expectation of any early opera-goer: a lament on a descending chromatic tetrachord, the time-honored emblem for grief and supplication (“Pietà Signor”).

Such a precious rediscovery was presented in Draghi’s native city as a special project within the 62.nd installment of the Sagra Musicale Malatestiana, a major festival series attracting visitors from several countries. For the third year in a row, Italian and Austrian institutions joined forces to celebrate Draghi, hitherto an injustly neglected composer of the Baroque era. Contrary to the current fade for oratorios, the Rome-based Ensemble Seicentonovecento led by Flavio Colusso didn’t arrange a fully staged production. The venue, a large 18th-century Jesuit church in downtown Rimini, offered visual attractions enough. No props, very few movements from the singers, and passages from period sermons delivered by actress Silvia De Palma shaped the performance as close as possible to the original conditions: half private entertainment, albeit in fashionable court circles, and half act of religious worship. Of course, most credit for the success goes to the music department. A scanty yet energetic ensemble of two violins, theorbo, organ and harpsichord accompanied a quartet of vocal soloists conversant both with the dramatic subtleties of recitar cantando and the virtuosic coloratura of late 17th-century bel canto. Two recognized specialists as sopranos Gemma Bertagnolli (Giuditta) and Elena Cecchi Fedi (Abra) were complemented by the up-and-coming bass Luigi De Donato (Oloferne) and by the male alto Antonio Giovannini, a beginner who seems poised for great things.


Robert Wilson’s fans use to maintain that he deepens and actualizes the dramaturgy of those operas he happens to stage. In my opinion, either is hardly true, as the Texan director’s strategy apparently aims at sucking the life out of any particular opera, freezing down its dramaturgy deep below the zero point in the pursue of such ritual impassiveness as it was probably the case with the original Greek tragedy - and still is with the Byzantine church liturgy, the Japanese Nô, India’s Katakhali or Stockhausen’s Licht cycle. To be sure, all these theatrical or quasi-theatrical genres are indented in a respectable religious vision where issues of style, symbols and formality are paramount, but actualization is obviously ruled out, while deepths of emotion (if any) are the individual elaboration of their devout attenders. Whether about Parsifal or Aida, Gluck’s French Orphée or his Monteverdi forerunner Orfeo, each of Wilson’s productions closely resembles but Wilson, just as any Mass resembles another Mass, leaving aside such local details as the language of the sung texts and the music accompanying them.

The present Ritorno di Ulisse - being the middle panel of a Monteverdi/Wilson trilogy scheduled by La Scala in co-production with the Paris Opéra between 2009 and 2013 - sticks to the trend: neither reconstruction nor deconstruction of the Classic, rather an embalming of it as in a classy funeral parlour. In the Prologue, the curtain rises on a backdrop mirroring Poussin’s Le Printemps, an Arcadian landscape inhabited by cute Disney-esque animals and mimes embodying Love, Fortune, Time and Human Frailty; too bad that the corresponding singers are plunged in the pit to the disadvantage of audibility. The core action revolves within hollow spaces ‘representing’ the sea or the Olympus, while the royal palace at Ithaca, where Penelope is detained in self-imprisonment, is aptly surrounded with menacing black slates.

the Bow Contest scene.pngThe Bow Contest scene [Photo by Lucie Jansch]

Deities and human beings, the powerful and the destitutes, the goodies and the villains, look equally unimpassioned and hieratic; static figures striking enigmatic poses with their white-gloved hands and their pale, heavily made-up, faces. Most of them, enclosed in Baroque parade armours, are donning lofty wigs or feathered bonnets. A déjà vu from the court pageants at Paris and Vienna during the mid 1600s, thus leaving the timeline near the 1640 premiere of the opera. What else? Colour-coded lighting schemes and sparse but effective props: Ulysse’s bow, the skeleton of a ship bottom, a Greek idol on a column.

Deaf to the minimal-chic mermaids of Wilson’s staging, Rinaldo Alessandrini offered a vibrant rendering of the score, despite the many uncertainties surrounding the actual completness of the unique Vienna manuscript (the critical edition he lately prepared for Bärenreiter underwent a few cuts as well as some educated guesses about the instrumental colours). The continuo players of his Concerto Italiano added authentic flare to a selection of strings from the Scala pit orchestra. Thus Monteverdi’s explicit concern for "affetti" (human passions) revived from Wilson's ritual fridge, also thanks to a company of all-Italian voices where Sara Mingardo and Furio Zanasi, both accomplished artists beyond strict specialist boundaries, towered as Penelope and Ulisse. Luca Dordolo made a graceful Eumete, Marianna Pizzolato a convincing Ericlea, Leonardo Cortellazzi’s Telemaco soared as the performance progressed. Among the double-bill cameos, basses Salvo Vitale and Luigi De Donato displayed remarkable panache. I only wonder what happened to brave Monica Bacelli, who for one time left aside her favorite breeches roles. Her Melanto, although allowed to display more acting liveliness than any other character in the show, betrayed an alarming vocal disarray. Hopefully just an off night.

Carlo Vitali

Cast Lists

Antonio Draghi: Oratorio di Giuditta (1668, libretto by anonymous)

Giuditta: Gemma Bertagnolli; Abra: Elena Cecchi Fedi; Testo [The Narrator]: Antonio Giovannini; Oloferne: Luigi De Donato. Ensemble Seicentonovecento (on period instruments). Flavio Colusso, conductor. Chiesa del Suffragio, Rimini, Italy. Performance of 20 September 2011.

Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria (1640, libretto by Giacomo Badoaro)

Ulisse: Furio Zanasi; Penelope: Sara Mingardo; Eumete: Luca Dordolo; Telemaco: Leonardo Cortellazzi; Fortuna/Melanto: Monica Bacelli; Il Tempo/Nettuno: Luigi De Donato; a.o. Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, with continuo elements from Concerto Italiano. Robert Wilson, director. Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy. Performance of 28 September 2011.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):