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.’
19 Apr 2012
Il Sogno di Scipione
It’s unclear whether Mozart composed this highly undramatic “dramatic action” when he was fifteen, for his kindly master Prince-Archbishop von Schrettenbach of Salzburg, or the following year for the newly-elected successor, Prince-Archbishop Colloredo, who, soon afterwards, had the young man literally kicked out of his service.
It is also unclear how much of
Sogno was ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime—very little,
apparently. The piece’s modern revival, possibly world premiere, took place
in 1979 with a cast (recorded) whose luxe is hardly imaginable for such a
project today: Popp, Gruberova, Mathis, Schreier, et al.
Michele Angelini as Scipione
The text is a moralizing serenata by the indefatigable imperial court poet
Metastasio (only his death, after half a century on the job, left the Viennese
post to Lorenzo da Ponte). He drew it from Cicero’s moralizing fable of the
younger Scipio Africanus choosing (in a dream) virtue over pleasure in the fine
old Roman republican manner, thus putting to shame the decadent Romans of
Cicero’s later era when the republic was dying. Metastasio made the choice
between Good Luck (Fortuna) and Self-Discipline (Constanza), and of course
Scipio chooses the latter, though not without Fortuna getting to make her case
pretty well. Sententious sentiment made the libretto ideal for formal
occasions, such as the investment of a new archbishop, but rather a stretch in
the theater. I saw it at the Residenz-Theater in Munich in 1991 (on a
double-bill with Mozart’s Apollo und Hyakinthos); the exquisite
jewel-box theater considerably outshone the music. Neal Goren, of Gotham
Chamber Opera, claims that when he started his company ten years ago, he slyly
told Christopher Alden that there was a Mozart opera that had never been staged
in this country (true) and that it was regarded as unstageable. Alden,
naturally, took this as a challenge. To celebrate ten felicitous years, Gotham
has revived his brilliant opening, which I missed at the time.
Cast of Il Sogno di Scipione
The production’s Regie-theater clichés must, in 2001, have been as
startling to a New York audience as Goren hoped they’d be. They still make
the audience laugh—and remain attentive. The curtain rises in heaven, a bare
bedroom, and Scipio wakes scratchily from a doze to find himself literally
between the sheets between two goddesses, from whom he must choose one. (At
last Friday’s performance, Fortuna has gone to bed with filthy feet. I have
no idea whether this was part of the director’s vision.) Fortuna presents
herself as fickle but fun by doing a reverse striptease, pulling assorted
outfits from a closet and trying them on for us. (Shoes! Tops! Wigs!) Constanza
never sheds her nightdress but she invokes the Music of the Spheres,
impersonated by globular hanging lamps. A chorus of dead heroes appears at the
window in assorted deadbeat garb, echoes from a zombie movie. (Scipio,
terrified, climbs on the wardrobe to escape them.) Scipio’s father (Publio,
an amputee in this version) and grandfather (Emilio, wheelchair-bound and
blind) show up to remind the lad of the glories of public service, in arias
that Mozart cannot have intended to possess the ironic air Alden’s staging
gives them. At last, though spooked, Scipio chooses Constanza (the path of
duty), Fortuna is frustrated, and an Epilogue (Licenza) appears to warble the
best tune of the night, congratulating the audience (in Mozart’s day, the
Archibishop; nowadays, us) for having the taste to admire this sublime
entertainment. Alden’s Licenza demonstrates her enthusiasm by tossing disco
moves into her coloratura ecstasies.
All of this activity and ironic subtext-as-commentary-within-action
undoubtedly gives the score a better chance of being appreciated than it would
ever secure if performed “straight.” Doubt crept in during the more
elaborate vocal displays—the piece was written for vocal display,
illustrating and underlining the meanings of the text, and as the intended
first cast were Salzburg singers, Mozart knew just what they could do. The
young singers performing for Gotham Chamber Opera were all of them more than
qualified to do justice to Mozart, personable, talented actors as well. But
none of the performances was entirely on the mark, coloratura were often
uneven, a little tuneless or imprecise, and it was impossible to suppress the
notion that they’d have sung better if there had been less wriggling about
(or tottering, in the case of amputated Publio, or clambering up the walls of
the armoire in the case of Scipio, or thrash-dancing in the case of Licenza).
It was an occasion of colorful performing but the Mozart-singing suffered for
Susannah Biller as Fortuna, Michele Angelini as Scipione and Marie-Ève Munger as Constanza
The two most interesting voices, the ones that made me eager to hear them
again in less athletic circumstances, belonged to Michele Angelini as dreaming
Scipio and to Maeve Höglund as Licenza. Angelini possesses a baritonal tenor,
an agreeable sound of masculine depth and a happy instinct for phrasing, plus
an easy extension to an agreeable lyric top. One foresees enjoying him as
Idomeneo or Belmonte. Höglund had the most sensuous voice of the bunch, a
soprano with mezzo undertones, luscious and sensuous in a text that lacked
seductive implications but seemed to have them when she put it over. Susannah
Biller’s Fortuna was flashy, sometimes to strident effect. Marie-Ève
Munger’s Costanza was altogether more cozy, but then it can’t be easy to
impersonate something so stolid with any flare. Arthur Espiritu and Chad A.
Johnson were effective as the ghosts of Scipio’s family past. Neal Goren led
a very spirited orchestra and chorus, and nearly two hours passed as
harmoniously as Ptolemy the Astronomer could have demanded.