28 Dec 2011
Leoncavallo’s I Medici
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
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.’
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
Both composers found early acclaim with one-act operas, and to this day the pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci serves as a popular mainstay of most opera houses. The sad shadow of that imposing success also falls on both composers, as neither ever managed to create another work as loved or esteemed. Leoncavallo, in fact, would have much preferred his name be linked, as unlikely as it may seem, with that of Richard Wagner. Leoncavallo considered himself to be better educated than his Italian contemporaries, including Puccini, who famously refused to acknowledge Leoncavallo’s prior claim to a novel about life among poverty-stricken hipsters in 19th century Paris — with Puccini’s La Bohéme driving Leoncavallo’s work into obscurity.
Leoncavallo would love to have created a multi-part epic along the lines of Wagner’s Ring cycle, and he actually completed the first of a planned triptych set in the Italian Renaissance — I Medici. In 2007 Deutsche Grammophon assembled some first-class artists to record this rare score. The booklet notes of DG’s handsomely produced set don’t attempt to peddle the opera as a long-lost masterpiece, offering the politely conditional, “If his opera ultimately does not work as drama ” while praising the highlights of the composer’s musical efforts. But there is more memorable melodic material in any fifteen minutes of Leoncavallo’s famed one-act work than in all four acts of I Medici.
The libretto complexly fails to provide any meaningful portrayal of the Renaissance or the political and cultural power of the two Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Other than a few lines at the beginning and end, the deeper issues Wagner would have dug into are ignored for a prosaic love triangle, with Giuliano in love with the sickly Simonetta, who would reciprocate if she weren’t so unwell she faints routinely. So Giulaino enjoys himself with her closest friend, Fioretta. Even as a love story, I Medici fails to satisfy, as Simonetta dies in act three almost as soon as she becomes aware of Giuliano’s dalliance with her friend, and before she can warn him of a conspiracy she has overheard to kill him and his brother. Giuliano falls victim to the assassins, while Fioretta mourns him and Lorenzo escapes. Lorenzo stays on the sidelines, making his shout of triumph at the end a bizarre non-sequitur. A menacing figure named Montesecco hangs on the outside of most of the drama yet has nothing pertinent to do in the action. The plot has more dead ends than a corn maze, but less suspense.
As a listening experience, however, I Medici shouldn’t be slighted. From the bray of hunting horns heard in the prelude through the song contest and dance sequence of act two up through the church music heard before the violence of act four, Leoncavallo stretches himself as an orchestrator. Why his lyric gift failed him can only be ascribed to the composer’s acknowledgement of his librettist’s (himself) failure to create any truly worthy inspiration.
The score finds worthy exponents in conductor Alberto Veronesi and its two male leads, Plácido Domingo and Carlos Álvarez. In 2007 Domingo still had a tenor’s silver in his vocal coloring, and he is caught in fine voice. Álvarez lacks the start tenor’s glamour and unique profile, but he has strength and nobility. As the perpetually ailing Simonetta, Daniella Dessi sounds very healthy, except for some harshness at the top. Renata Lamanda can’t make much of the dreary Fioretta, while Eric Owens lends his smoky bass in the negligible role of Montesecco.
For collectors of rare repertoire, this is an obvious “must-buy.” Otherwise, the appeal of this set is probably limited to devoted fans of either male lead.