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It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
02 Aug 2012
Santa Fe Opera, Karol Szymanowski : King Roger
The gifted Polish composer Karol Szymanowski wrote his three-act King Roger, in the 1920's. It is an allegorical tale of honor vs. pleasure set to quite beautiful music, especially in the orchestral writing, which Santa Fe chose to play in the same season as the Rossini in a wide tip of the hat to unknown but worthy repertory.
While King Roger is rarely heard, I happen to have experienced it in 1980 when the St. Louis Symphony presented two performances in concert form under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, who was an advocate for Szymanowski’s music. It made very little impression at that time, but heightened my appreciation of the Santa Fe production, whose theatrical qualities much enhanced the somewhat tepid tale of the Sicilian king, if one set within an unusually rich musical tapestry. A colorful and dramatic production of a static opera can make the effort seem worthwhile, and King Roger’s treatment by Santa Fe could hardly have been more beneficial. (Santa Fe played the opera in one 90-minute act that enhanced continuity.)
First of all the music: Wide swathes of Debussy-influenced tone painting abound, forming an impressionistic atmosphere, often punctuated and disputed by sharp polytonal accents and chromatic arguments in the full orchestra, illustrating Roger’s unhappy moods. The King is torn between his conventional church-approved duties as Monarch, versus the upsetting proposals of a charismatic Shepherd that appeared from nowhere, and much beguiled not only Roger’s subjects but also his wife, Roxana, with tempting ideas about sensual and erotic pleasures. Roger himself is tempted but also dismayed by the Shepherd whose call he hears all too well. In the end the King restores order, at least in his own mind, and assumes the royal robes of convention, but not without having been marked by life’s Dionysian distractions. With lots of talk, lots of posturing and agonizing and a rather ho-hum plot, King Roger is saved by the elegant and original music emanating from the orchestra. The vocal writing is mainly declamatory or conversational, with few if any memorable set pieces, aside from Roxanna’s song, a haunting vocalise that accompanies her fall to Dionysius.
Special appreciation must go to Evan Rogister, the young American conductor, who was a leading hand in making the show work. The singers were all competent, and sometimes more than that, but it is an ensemble opera without the need for star turns. As the King, young Polish lyric baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was authoritative and convincing, perhaps more in the King’s suffering than otherwise, but his is a lyric voice, so fine in Mozart, sometimes taxed in Szymanowski’s bigger moments. His Roxana was handsomely sung by the soprano Erin Morley who brought silvery beauty to her aria. The Shepherd is a hard role to cast and no doubt a difficult one to perform, but ingratiating tenor William Burden rose to the occasion, even if sometimes his top tones turned a bit pale and hard to hear. Raymond Aceto lent his distinguished baritone voice to the role of the Archbishop, with Dennis Peterson and Laura Wilde serving well in secondary parts.
The effectively played stage action was conceived by highly regarded director Stephen Wadsworth whose ideas were strong and clarifying, and were assisted by the ingenious if spare set designs of Thomas Lynch. The unusually fine costumes were by Ann Hould-Ward. Her designs, detailed and impressive, especially in Act I, immediately established a feeling of style and quality that set the right tone and engaged the viewer; strong input by Ms Hould-Ward who first worked at Santa Fe in 1992. I must particularly acknowledge the accomplishment of chorus master Susanne Sheston, whose Santa Fe Opera apprentice singers, augmented by twenty-four professional voices from the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, gave a superior account of Szymanowski’s sumptuous choral writing, one of the most noteworthy beauties of the score. I hope to meet King Roger again some day. His is an enchanting and musically rewarding illusion.
© J.A. Van Sant, 2012