15 Feb 2012
Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera
David McVicar’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, previously staged in 2006 (twice),
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
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.