24 Feb 2012
La clemenza di Tito — Barbican
The last opera seria — Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
The last opera seria — Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.
After writing three great Italian operas which advanced the genre immensely, Mozart turned his attention elsewhere. In his final year he wrote two last operas, which not only contrast with each other but with the three Da Ponte operas which precede them. His singspiel Die Zauberflöte has long been accepted on operatic stages, but La clemenza di Tito has only relatively recently come to acceptance as being stage-worthy.
Somehow, Mozart’s reverting to an opera seria libretto based on Metastasio seemed a step backwards; compared to the three Da Ponte operas, La clemenza di Tito can seem static and actionless. It is in fact an opera which requires the right performers, and at the Barbican on Wednesday 22nd February, the Deutscher Kammerphiharmonie Bremen, under conductor Louis Langrée presented the opera in concert, with a cast who seemed to understand Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.
Of course, the piece isn’t strictly an opera seria; the libretto was re-written for Mozart by Caterino Mazzola the Dresden court librettist. Mazzola reduced the number of acts to two and introduced trios, duets and ensembles, giving a greater role to the chorus and creating the Act 1 choral finale. (In fact there is a Gluck setting of the original libretto and I have long thought that it would be illuminating to hear the two side by side in concert.) But Mozart kept a number of opera seria elements in his setting, notably the use of long, highly serious arias; this of course was helped by the fact that one of the arias was a pre-existing concert aria which Mozart included, thus facilitating the speeding writing of the piece. He also relished the way the drama turns slowly, that we get to examine the major characters in detail, emotion by emotion, Affekt by Affekt.
The subtlety which Mozart and Mazzola brought to the piece is demonstrated by their Act 1 trio for Vitellia, Publio and Annio, inserted at the point where Tito has decided to make Vitellia his bride. This could easily have been an aria for Vitellia as she agonises over the fact that it is too late to call back Sesto from his plot; instead Mozart and Mazzola counterpoint this with Publio and Annio’s reactions, naturally they assume that Vitellia is imply overcome by the enormity of the honour of being made Caesar’s wife.
The concert performance at the Barbican was the third stop in a four city tour (Dortmund, Bremen, London, Paris) so that the performance was well bedded in. Though scores were used by the singers, some seemed to ignore them entirely and others were hardly bound to them. In fact this was a highly dramatic presentation. Chief amongst this was the Tito of Michael Schade. Schade used the recitatives in a vivid way, sometimes distorting the line for emphasis. His Tito was no compliant dummy, but a highly emotional and at times over-wrought man; in fact Schade was one of the most extrovert Tito’s I have ever seen, a highly involved and strongly projected performance. This was combined with some very fine Mozart singing, with a clear sense of line combined with dramatic thrust. This made Tito much more of a major player in the drama, rather than a passive ruler to whom things happened as has often been the case with other tenors in this role. Though I have to say that sometimes I thought that Schade went it little too far, with over emphatic dramatics which a good director would surely have taken in hand (there was no director credited in the programme).
Alice Coote’s Sesto was no less dramatic, but all the more compelling for being a far less histrionic performance. Coote’s Sesto was firmly rooted in the music, in the long statuesque arias which Mozart wrote for the character. The great showpiece “Parto, parto” was superbly done, finely accompanied by the solo bassett clarinet from the orchestra. But Sesto’s big accompagnato at the opening of Act 2 also showed a great artist at work, combining musical values with profound drama. Coote is highly experienced in baroque opera seria and so you felt that her performance in this, the last opera seria, was inflected by Mozart’s reflection of the past. Coote’s Sesto reflected both Mozart’s other writing for mezzo-soprano, but also earlier Handelian roles.
She was ably partnered by the Vitellia of Malin Hartelius. Vitellia is a curious role; written for a soprano, it includes the aria, “Non piu di fiori”, which may originally have been concert aria for a distinctly lower voice. This gives the part quite a wide range and its tessitura is such that mezzo-sopranos such as Janet Baker and Della Jones have played with role and on stage it can often be performed by a dramatic soprano (Julia Varady has recorded the role). Malin Hartelius has a rather lighter voice than these; her CV includes recent highlights such as Fiordiligi, Leila (Le Pecheurs de Perles) and her first Marschallin. She played Vitellia as more overtly sexy and rather less the scheming bitch; Hartelius brought a sexual charge to a lot of Vitellia’s music, here was a woman who lived in a man’s world by trading on her female wiles and charms. The relative lightness of Hartelius’s voice meant that we got a nice flexibility in the vocal line, which was a great treat. (Here was a Vitellia more closely related to Fiordiligi than is sometimes the case). She approached the top of her voice with caution, but nothing was announced regarding indisposition. In “Non piu di fiori” she approached the low notes bravely, making the effort seem part and parcel of a fine performance; again the obliggato was played finely by the orchestra’s clarinettist, this time on a bassett horn, thus giving the aria its distinctive tint.
Coote and Hartelius developed a strongly co-dependent relationship which was all too believable and became the strong engine of the drama around which the other roles circulated. Luckily the cast formed a strong ensemble, so that Coote and Hartelius did not overbalance the drama.
Christina Daletska displayed a lighter, brighter voice than Coote, so that her Annio was clearly related to Cherubino, though a Cherubino now grown up and willing to challenge authority. Daletska gave a seriously fine account of Annio’s aria “Tu fosti tradito” when he stands up to Tito after the discovery of Sesto’s involvement in the plot against Tito.
Rosa Feola was an entirely admirable Servilia, giving a performance that combined charm with a certain interesting dramatic edge. She left you wishing that Mozart had written more for this character.
Brindley Sherratt was Publio, the commander of the Praetorian Guards; a role entirely without aria, but one which has an important part to play in the drama and in the ensembles. Sherratt discharged his duty entirely admirably and convincingly, bringing a nicely dramatic firmness of line to the role.
Of course, one major aspect of any performance ofLa clemenza di Tito is the recitative. There’s a lot of it and it’s not all by Mozart; one of his pupils wrote it under his supervision. The cast gave us quite a full version, accompanied by Raphael Alpermann’s lively fortepiano. The result was fleet and dramatic, keeping the action moving and making us aware that it really was drama.
The Deutscher Kammerchor provided the choral moments with nicely turned phrases. They were not on stage all the time, so their entrances and exits were a little distracting, but once present their singing was of a high order.
Conductor Louis Langrée drew a fluent and at times speedy account of the music from the Deustche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. But Langrée’s concern for lively expressiveness seemed at times to be at the expense of cohesiveness of ensemble. Still, he got a vivid and involving performance from everyone and above all made us believe in La clemenza di Tito as drama, rather than a museum curiosity.