Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Béatrice and Bénédict at Glyndebourne

‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.

Der fliegende Holländer, Bavarian State Opera

‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.

Evergreen Baby in Colorado

Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.

Lean and Mean Tosca in Colorado

Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.

Die Walküre, Baden-Baden

A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.

Des Moines’ Elusive Manon

Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.

Falstaff in Iowa: A Big Fat Hit

Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece

Die Fledermaus, Opera Holland Park

With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.

Nice, July 14, and then . . .

J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.

Prom 2: Boris Godunov, ROH

Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.

Des Moines’ Gluck Sets the Standard

What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?

Des Moines: Jewels in Perfect Settings

Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.

First Night of the Proms 2016

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.

La Cenerentola, Opera Holland Park

In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.

Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno in Aix

The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.

Pelleas et Mélisande in Aix

Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.

Siegfried, Opera North

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.

Götterdämmerung, Opera North

The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne

Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, which was new in 2012, returned to Glyndebourne on 3 July 2016 revived by Ian Rutherford.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

(Gustave Doré, lithographie de Barbe Bleue)
05 Nov 2011

Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall

Bartók’s only opera, a masterpiece to rank with other sole works in the genre such as Fidelio and Pelléas et Mélisande, was chosen for the climax of the Philharmonia’s year-long series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’.

Claude Debussy — Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Béla Bartók — Piano Concerto no.3; éla Bartók — Bluebeard’s Castle (semi-staged)

Yefim Bronfman (piano); Judit: Michelle DeYoung; Bluebeard: Sir John Tomlinson; Juliet Stevenson (narrator). Director: Nick Hillel (director); Staging: David Edwards; Set designs: Adam Wiltshire; Lighting: David Holmes. Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 3 November 2011.

Above: Lithograph of Bluebeard by Gustave Doré

 

It was the obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still earlier guise than the composer of Pelléas, and the third of Bartók’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is pretty much universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate, but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely — Prélude à l’après-midi received a fine performance. Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen; he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to later Debussy and to a number of works by Bartók and other composers of his generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of Debussy’s — and Bartók’s — foremost interpreters. Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance of this great work.

Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a concerto that does not always show Bartók at his best — was piquant and lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to the serried ranks of coughers.

Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version, directed by Nick Hillel. Bartók’s opera is a strange case, in that in many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority, as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections, and lighting all worked as they should.

Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually Pelléas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative: some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly, the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which, Bartók’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention. Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with Schoenberg’s contemporary Die glückliche Hand. On the other hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on and showing a few clouds on the move.

I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet, matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to the work, but might better have been discarded.

Mark Berry

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):