Recently in Performances
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.
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.’
23 Jan 2012
A Noteworthy Ariadne auf Naxos, Chicago
Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos presents challenges in casting not only because of the vocal line and identity associated with individual characters but also because of its nature as a self-comment on the musical stage and the requisite dramatic skills thus needed.
Lyric Opera of
Chicago succeeds in meeting these challenges on both accounts in its recent
revival. The title role was sung by Amber Wagner, the Composer in the Prologue
by Alice Coote, Zerbinetta by Anna Christy, and the god Bacchus by Brandon
Jovanovich. Other roles showing strong performances include Eike Wilm Schulte
as the Music Master, Matthew Worth (debut) as Harlekin, and Nili Riemer
(debut), Jamie Barton, and Kiri Deonarine (debut) singing the three nymphs
Naiad, Dryad, and Echo respectively. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera
Orchestra in a fluid and moving performance of Strauss’s score.
Alice Coote as the Composer
During the instrumental prelude to the first part the audience is presented
with preparations for a seventeenth-century production. Scaffolds, doorways to
dressing rooms, props and primitive dramatic machinery clutter the stage in
this self-reflective Prologue to the varieties of entertainment scheduled to
follow. The performers of the evening run about their tasks until the first
exchange of dialogue between the Music Master and the Major Domo of the palace.
Eike Wilm Schulte’s fluency and projection of both spoken and sung German are
exemplary as needed to steer a course of diplomacy between the Major Domo’s
demands and the sensitivity of his pupil, the Composer. Schulte’s
legato and attention to pitch in distended notes enhanced his
desperation in trying to fulfill multiple roles. In the speaking role of the
Major Domo David Holloway cut an appropriately pompous figure while relaying
his maser’s whims in a bureaucratic monotone. When the Composer, visible in
diligence at his desk from earlier in the Prologue, begins to react to news
from the Music Master, Alice Coote’s voice blooms with passion and devotion
to the musical art. Her wide range with a fluid transition from low to secure
top notes was used skillfully to convey the Composer’s consternation and
disbelief that his serious opera “Ariadne” was to be mixed with low comedy.
Anna Christy as Zerbinetta with commedia dell’arte troupe
Phrases such as “Allmächtiger Gott” and “Nach meiner Oper ein lustiges
Nachspiel!” [“Almighty God” “A humorous interlude after my opera!”]
showed effective use of Coote’s dramatic sense of vocal transition. As the
Prima Donna and Tenor for the opera plead the importance of their own roles,
the Composer swirls in further controversy. Only after he learns that his opera
must be performed simultaneously with the commedia, Zerbinetta and
Her Four Lovers, does attention focus primarily on the personalities of
the Composer and Zerbinetta. Ms. Christy had portrayed a sprightly, playful
figure until this point. Her own transformation into a counterpoint for the
Composer is not only convincing dramatically, but it is also demonstrative of a
vocally altered character. The Composer, in turn, declares that he would prefer
to toss his precious score into the fire, detailed excitingly by Coote with
ascending pitches on “Lieber ins Feuer.” During the ensuing duet both
characters seem to lose their animosity, with the Composer’s interest clearly
in acceleration. Although he continues to take himself seriously, Zerbinetta
makes him see everything, as Coote declares urgently, “mit anderen Augen”
[“with different eyes”]. During their interchange Davis provided excellent
orchestral support with the woodwinds standing out especially in expressive
lines parallel to those for the voice. Coote’s final aria, “Musik ist eine
heilige Kunst,” [“music is a holy art”] was delivered as a heartfelt
soliloquy with effectively held notes emphasizing the Composer’s sincere
dedication to his art. When pulled out of this self-absorption by
Zerbinetta’s whistle and calls to prepare her troupe, Coote ended the
prologue with dramatic expressiveness on “frieren, verhungern, sterben”
[“to freeze, to starve, to die”] as reactions to this unexpected
In the prelude to the opera proper Davis’s conducting brought out the
rich, orchestral colors with horns balancing off the nicely integrated string
playing. The three nymphs, who introduced the act with questions and
repartee on Ariadne’s emotional and physical state, sang distinctly
as a trio with vocal decorations blending fittingly. Ms. Wagner’s entrance
began with solidly produced low notes followed by equally impressive and
emotionally charged high pitches on “Mein Kopf ist leer” [“My mind is
empty”]. Wagner’s dramatic approach to “Dies muß ich finden” [“I
must find this”] prepared Ariadne’s personality for the aria “Es gibt ein
Reich” [“There exists a kingdom”]. In this performance Ms. Wagner drew on
her preceding vocal characterization and added moments such as a deep emphasis
on “Totenreich” [“realm of death”] contrasting with an impressive high
pitch on “Hermes, stiller Gott.” When she described being alone, “ganz
allein,” with a touching piano, it further emphasized her brittle
emotional state, since this followed on her dramatic rubato at “von
meiner Höhle” [“from my cave”]. Her conclusion to the aria left an
impression of her character’s yearning and incompleteness. Immediately after
this piece Zerbinetta and her troupe dominate the stage but their attention is
now focused on sympathy with Ariadne’s plight. Matthew Worth displayed an
appropriate physicality as Harlekin while he sang an exquisite lyrical appeal
to the inattentive Ariadne.
Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos
Of course one of the highlights of the operatic segment of Ariadne auf
Naxos is Zerbinetta’s aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin,” in which the
innermost feelings of the commedia performer answer the question,
“Are we not both women?” Ms. Christy sang the challenging role with
alternating glee and wistfulness: her voice is a comfortable fit for the many
roulades and interpolated decorations. The effect taken on “treulos”
[“faithless”] and trills executed just before “Als ein Gott kam jeder
gegangen” [“Every man approached me like a god”] were a tasteful and
knowing cap on this splendid performance of the aria.
Once the nymphs announce the arrival of Bacchus [“Ein schönes Wunder
(“A beautiful miracle”)], his cries of “Circe” from the distance match
their excitement. From the start of his role Mr. Jovanovich was always on pitch
with notes produced forte when dramatically needed and piano
when expressing his appeals to Ariadne. His cries of “Circe” intensified
without a hint of strain just as he sang diminuendo on “Zauberin”
[“magical being”] when voicing his attraction. The final extended duet
celebrating the love between Ariadne and Bacchus as performed by Wagner and
Jovanovich was sufficiently moving to count as the “schönes Wunder” that
the nymphs had anticipated.