15 Feb 2012
Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera
David McVicar’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, previously staged in 2006 (twice),
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
David McVicar’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, previously staged in 2006 (twice),
2008, and 2010, now returns as part of the Royal Opera House’s ‘Da Ponte cycle’. I cannot help wishing that funds had stretched to commissioning three new productions, preferably from the same director, with a sense of how the works might actually cohere as a ‘cycle’. Nevertheless, and despite a good number of reservations I continue to entertain, McVicar’s production remains preferable to Jonathan Miller’s vulgar Così fan tutte, and, assuming it not to have been overhauled beyond recognition, Francesca Zambello’s vacuous Don Giovanni.
Anna Bonitatibus as Cherubino and Jeremy White as Antonio
Moving the action to the 1820s does no Restoration period, but the motivation remains obscure. If the point be to highlight Talleyrand’s observation concerning the restored Bourbons, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, then it needs to be made, not assumed. The Count’s droit de seigneur is a gross exaggeration in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth, it merely seems incredible. ‘Absolutism’ was of course a nineteenth-century way of understanding the ancien régime, painting a complex society in the bold, often crude colours of monarchs such as Charles X. A good deal of sophistication would be needed to make the shift coherent, yet here the political seems notable for the most part by its absence. We have neither a society of orders nor an emergent class-based society, merely a house with hyperactive servants in attractive costumes. The result, whatever the intention, seems to be pandering to devotees of mindless ‘costume dramas’. It all nevertheless looks good, and certain moments are very well handled, especially the magical falling of dusk between the third and fourth acts. (Incidentally, when audience members are relentlessly intent upon disrupting the action with mid-act applause, why do they then fall silent at the end of an act? Mystifying!) The servants’ running about during the Overture remains an unnecessary irritant — can anyone really think that Mozart’s music deserves to be drowned out by footsteps? — and Leah Hausman’s revival direction, sadly, tends towards the Carry On school, only encouraging a vocal, puerile section of the audience, about which more anon.
Lucas Meachem as Count Almaviva and Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Countess Almaviva
The greatest surprise of the evening was perhaps Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting. There were problems: too often, he seems to view Mozart as aspiring towards Rossini, and the consequent motor rhythms have no place whatsoever in Mozart’s music. Certain aspects of phrasing also suffered in that respect, perhaps most glaringly in the Overture; articulation, where desperately needed, came there none. The use of natural horns was at best questionable; their rasping at the conclusion of Figaro’s fourth act aria was unpleasant in the extreme. That said, and with the notable exception of the end of the second act, Pappano did not harry the score; indeed, there were moments when he clearly communicated his delight in its subtleties. Woodwind might not have ravished in the way they did for Sir Colin Davis in 2010, but they seduced nevertheless. Tempi convinced for the most part, and there was little of the tendency towards mere ‘accompaniment’ that has often held back this conductor’s work previously. I seem to be the only person who regrets the ‘traditional’ cuts in the fourth act, but regret them I do.
Casting Figaro successfully seems trickier than one would expect. Even in 2010, a simply astounding male team of Erwin Schrott (Figaro) and Marius Kwiecien (the Count) had to endure sub-par contributions from their Susanna and Countess. Here the undoubted star was Aleksandra Kursak’s Susanna, ever musical, ever lively, and above all ever alert to the twists and turns Da Ponte and Mozart lovingly throw her way. One could not, for the duration of the performance, imagine it being done better any other way. Phrasing was telling but unobtrusive, likewise her sideways glances.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro and Susana Gaspar as Barbarina
Ildebrando d’Arcangelo has never lacked stage presence, and his voice at its dark-chocolate best remains as attractive as his handsome visage and figure. There were, however, a good few moments, especially earlier on, when his delivery lacked focus. Lucas Meachem’s Count suffered similarly, though he also lacked his valet’s presence — a serious drawback, alas. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Countess was a serious disappointment: I have never heard ‘Porgi, amor’ so ill-tuned, nor so squally. She improved as time went on, but throughout lacked grace and, straightforwardly, character. The Cherubino of Anna Bonatatibus also disappointed: ill-focused and short-breathed. Even the Marcellina of a stalwart such as Ann Murray, an artist I admire greatly, sometimes sounded out of sorts. And would directors please cease their fixation with turning Don Basilio into a camp monstrosity? It is entirely unwarranted in either libretto or score, and has simply become a tedious cliché.
Finally, alas, a character that was all too present on this occasion: the audience, or at least a considerable section thereof. I had been tempted to open with the words, ‘more in sorrow than in anger,’ but that would have misled, for both emotions ran to the surface dealing with so disruptive a crowd. All manner of disruption was present, unremittingly so. Barely a bar went by without a cough or two. Objects were dropped left, right, and centre — and I am not referring to the stage business. A watch alarm made a charming accompaniment to ‘Porgi, amor’, though we had to wait a little longer for telephones to make their first appearance. Worst of all was the incessant, moronic laughter, perhaps to a certain extent elicited by more dubious aspects of the production; but really, if one finds someone walking onstage with a dog intrinsically hilarious, then one may need to seek treatment.
Alexandra Kurzak as Susanna and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro
The slightest reference — via the surtitles, be it noted — to anything sexual was met with all the maturity of a convention for non-recovering Benny Hill Show addicts. I should say that those people needed to get out more, except I should much rather they stayed at home. Most unforgivable was the laughter that greeted those words: ‘Contessa, perdono’. McVicar’s production brings a true sense of revelation at that point, the show-stopping appearance of the Countess, ravishing and in more than one sense graceful, fully in tune with Mozart’s approaching benediction. What is even remotely hilarious about seeking a forgiveness that goes beyond even the humanity of the Countess to the Almighty Himself, that ‘peace … which passeth all understanding’? Even if somehow one were to find that hysterically amusing — presumably one would then guffaw through King Lear or the Missa Solemnis — one might have some regard for fellow members of the audience, those who might have come to hear Mozart’s score. As the gentleman seated next to me commented during the curtain calls, it made one long to be Ludwig II, alone with one’s art. None of this is, of course, in any sense the fault of the Royal Opera House, but perhaps an announcement requesting silence during performance and the occasional summary execution, pour encourager les autres, might be in order.