12 Mar 2012
A Physical Barber by ETO
For an operatic masterpiece The Barber of Seville is surprisingly tricky to do well, it is not one of those pieces which plays itself.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
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.
For an operatic masterpiece The Barber of Seville is surprisingly tricky to do well, it is not one of those pieces which plays itself.
For a start, it is rather long with copious quantities of plot and of recitative. Essentially it’s a fast paced farce, but one which is populated by believable, human characters thanks to Rossini’s music. But then, Rossini goes and throws in those long, stylised ensembles which sound fabulous but present the director with the problem of what to do. Some solve this by making the farce veer into slapstick, and other productions just aren’t funny (on Radio 3 recently the director of the Met, Peter Gelb, talked about one of their patrons not realising that The Barber of Seville was a comedy).
Andrew Slater as Bartolo and Alan Fairs as Basilio
For ETO’s new production, which opened at the Hackney Empire on March 8th (we saw it on March 10th), director Thomas Guthrie opted for a very physical approach, but one that was strongly character based. The cast were all highly choreographed (the ensemble in the first scene actually break out into choreographed dance), but we never descended into slapstick, laughs always came because of the interaction on the stage not simply because a character was doing a funny walk. He kept the piece moving at a very fast pace and the talented, young cast responded by delivering recitative that was dramatically convincing and quick moving. The work was sung in English, in David Parry’s musical translation. The result was, as it should be, highly entertaining, you never felt that you were sitting through the recit simply waiting for the next aria, as can happen.
Nicholas Sharratt as Almaviva
Rhys Jarman’s traditionally inspired designs consisted of a series of painted flats representing panelling; with judicious additions in each scene, these created a flexible series of playing spaces, both interior and exterior. All overlooked by a striking backdrop of a city-scape with a lowering sky. Colours were in a carefully chosen tonal palate, modern but classical; with Gillray style cartoons in modern colours as the pictures in Bartolo’s house. Costumes were traditional too, but the piece didn’t feel embedded in aspic.
The title role was played by Grant Doyle, who studied both in his native Australia and at the RCM. He was on the ROH Young Artists programme in 2001-3 and plans include the title role in Don Giovanni at Garsington. Doyle has a strong stage presence and effortlessly dominated, as Figaro should, without ever mugging. (Incidentally he played the guitar himself during the Act 1 serenade). His Figaro was rather a smug character, almost annoyingly so, but a charmer too. His account of ‘Largo al factotum’ was marred very slightly by balance problems, which reoccurred at other times during the performance; from our seat in the Dress Circle the orchestra sometimes was a little too strong for the singers, probably more to do with the acoustic of Frank Matcham’s theatre (which was built as a music hall) than anything else.
Kitty Whately won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2011 and currently studies at the RCM International Opera School. We saw her as Teodata in Flavio at ETO last year and were looking forward to her singing Rosina and we were not disappointed. Whately has a poised stage presence and gave the impression that Rosina was looking on the world, for the most part, in amused tolerance. A strong minded person, but lively and certainly attractive; she was touching in the closing scenes when Rosina thinks that she has been betrayed by Figaro and ‘Lindoro’.
Grant Doyle as Figaro
I have to confess that when it comes to the singing of passage-work both in baroque opera and early 19th century Italian opera, I am a bit of an obsessive; in an ideal world everything should be sung beautifully and cleanly. This Whately did, of the 3 main leads (Rosina, Figaro, Almaviva) all sang their passage-work confidently, expressively and creditably. But there were times when I felt that both Nicholas Sharratt (singing Almaviva) and Doyle were smudging things, but Whately’s divisions always seemed to come out cleanly.
She was partnered by the highly personable Nicholas Sharratt who has sung Nemorino at Grange Park Opera and Brighella (Ariadne auf Naxos) at Garsington. He has an attractive, quite slim-line lyric tenor voice with an easy top so that as Count Almaviva the tessitura of the role did not seem to hold terrors for him. As I have said, there were times when I felt he smudged his passage-work, but I warmed to his performance. His open stage presence and the way he developed a good rapport with Whately were endearing; plus he had good comic timing, he was funny without ever over doing things when playing the drunken soldier. He topped this by giving a fine account of the Count’s final aria, the showpiece which is usually cut and which Rossini re-used for La Cenerentola. After a long evening, Sharratt’s performance was quite brilliant and made a good dramatic case for including the aria.
L-R: Grant Doyle as Figaro, Kitty Whately as Rosina, Nicholas Sharratt as Almaviva, Cheryl Enever as Berta, Andrew Slater as Bartolo and Alan Fairs as Basilio
Andrew Slater has been an ETO regular for a few years now. He played Doctor Bartolo as an obsessively jealous dyspeptic, rather than being plain nasty. He coped manfully with having to do some amazingly botched comic surgery on patients during his Act 1 aria; one of the few moments when Guthrie’s ideas got the better of him. As with all good comedy, you felt sorry for Bartolo even though he behaved badly.
Alan Fairs was a hilariously scary Don Basilio and gave a strong, highly characterised account of the calumny arias. Cheryl Enever was a lively Berta, unfortunately deprived of her aria.
Conductor Paul McGrath kept things going at quite a lick, which was great for the comedy but which meant that co-ordination between pit and stage was not always quite what it should have been; this was particularly true in the big comic ensembles when Guthrie has his cast moving around. But it was an understandable error, given the desire to keep everything zipping along.
This was a performance full of energy and vivid character. Guthrie’s very physical approach to theatre was enthusiastically taken up by the cast. Despite the occasional problems, this was a performance that was funny and enjoyable in all the right ways.
ETO is performing the opera on tour in the UK until May 26th, along with Eugene Onegin and three children’s operas.