10 Oct 2012
Die Zauberflöte, ENO
‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme.
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 Tsarskoye Selo.
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.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
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.
‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme.
Maybe they are, maybe not; the same has been said before. It is, at any rate, difficult to think that they should not be. Quite why such reverence should be accorded what at best one might call a ‘straightforward’ production is beyond me. Some will doubtless applaud the lack of anything so strenuous as an idea or two, anti-intellectualism being so ingrained in certain quarters of this country’s commentariat. (Remember the outrage at the Royal Opera’s splendid Rusalka?) Some, ignorant of or simply uninterested in, the Rosicrucian mysteries of the work, will doubtless have been happy with a naïveté that sits at best awkwardly with our age, irreversibly ‘sentimental’ in Schiller’s sense. But surely even they would have found this revival tired, listless. Apparently some of them did not, however, given the raucous laughter issuing from around the theatre: any time a rhyming couplet appeared on the surtitles, some found it almost unbearably hilarious. Moreover, audience participation went beyond even the usual coughing, chattering, and opening of sweets. (A woman behind me must have made her way through a good quarter of the city’s stocks of Wine Gums). Someone even saw fit to disrupt the performance by shouting out a proposal of marriage to Papageno just at that saddest, pathos-ridden of moments when the music turns and he resolves to take his life. No matter though: it elicited a great deal of hilarity. And that of course is all that matters. Those who laughed at the priests’ dialogue may or may not have been aware how offended Mozart was at someone who did the same in the composer’s presence. Presumably the same people thought it ‘amusing’ to boo Adrian Thompson’s rather good Monostatos too. They seemed, however, a little hard of hearing, for their applause generally began long before the orchestra had concluded.
Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night
Jeremy Sams’s ‘English version’ doubtless egged them on in all their boorishness. I have asked before what is held to be wrong with Schikaneder. One can point to shortcomings, no doubt, though one should always bear in mind Goethe’s admiration. But the only good thing one can really say about this hodgepodge is that it is not nearly so bad as what Sams has inflicted upon The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It remains intensely pleased with itself, drawing attention to itself rather than shedding light upon the drama, and remains distant enough that ‘version’ is wisely substituted for ‘translation’. Yet, given the difficulties so many of the cast had with delivering the dialogue, it really might as well all have been in German. That would also have relieved us of that terrible clash between the text we know in our heads - especially for the text set to music - and that we hear on stage and/or see in the titles (the latter two not always being the same). Different accents are ‘amusingly’ employed; one might have thought it offensive to find a Welsh accent (Papagena) intrinsically funny, but apparently not.
Nicholas Collon’s conducting was disappointing. One often hears far worse in Mozart nowadays; yet, as so often, it was difficult not to long for great performances of the past (Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, et al.), or indeed of the present (Sir Colin Davis). ‘Lightness’ was for the most part all, a peculiar mannerism being the falling off into nothingness at the end of many numbers. Quite why one would wish to make this score, often but a stone’s throw, if that, from Beethoven, sound so inconsequential, is beyond me; at least it was not brutalised, as ‘period’ fanatics would wish. That said, the brass sounded as if they were natural; they may or may not have been, since modern instrumentalists are sometimes instructed perversely to ape the rasping manner of their forebears, and I could not see into the pit. At any rate, the result was unpleasant. A few numbers were taken far too quickly, but for the most part it was the lack of harmonic grounding that troubled rather than speeds as such; we were spared the ludicrous Mackerras triple-speed approach to ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s,’ one of the worst atrocities I have ever had the misfortune to hear inflicted upon Mozart. But as for the lily-gliding of introducing a glockenspiel part into the final chorus... Mozart is not Monteverdi; he does not need to be ‘realised’, and certainly not like that. A good number of appoggiaturas and other instances of ornamentation were introduced to the vocal lines, not least to those of the Three Ladies at the beginning. The fashionable practice does no especial harm, I suppose, but nor does it really accomplish anything beyond drawing mild attention to itself.
Duncan Rock as Papageno, Elizabeth Llewellyn as First Lady, Catherine Young as Second Lady, Pamela Helen Stephens as Third Lady and Shawn Mathey as Tamino
Vocally there was more to enjoy, though the record was mixed. Elena Xanthoudakis made for an unusually rich-toned Pamina. Best of all was Duncan Rock’s Papageno, for the most part quite beautifully sung, though his dialogue veered confusingly between outright Australian and something less distinct. Kathryn Lewek had some difficulties with her intonation as the Queen of the Night, but then most singers do; more troubling was her tendency to slow down to cope with the coloratura. Shawn Mathey resorted to crooning more than once during his Portrait Aria and was throughout a somewhat underwhelming Tamino. Robert Lloyd’s voice is, sadly, not what it was; Sarastro’s first aria sounded very thin, though matters improved thereafter. There was luxury casting, however, when it came to the Three Ladies; Elizabeth Llewellyn is already a noted Countess, and it showed. The Three Boys were excellent too: three cheers to Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. Choral singing was a bit workmanlike but that may have been as much a matter of the conducting as anything else. One certainly had little sense of the kinship with Mozart’s other Masonic music.
The website and programme have the Two Armoured Men as the ‘Two Armed Men’, a strangely common yet baffling error: the German is perfectly clear. At least the production had it right, the men donning breastplates at the opening of that great chorale prelude. The Queen of the Night remains, for some reason, the ‘Queen of Night’.
Tamino: Shawn Mathey; Papageno: Duncan Rock; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Monostatos: Adrian Thompson; Pamina: Elena Xanthoudakis; Speaker: Roland Wood; Sarastro: Robert Lloyd; Papagena: Rhian Lois; Two Priests, Two Armoured Men: Nathan Vale, Barnaby Rea; Three Ladies: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young, Pamela Helen Stephen; Three Boys: Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, Thomas Fetherstonhaugh; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Revival Directors: Ian Rutherford and James Bonas; Designs: Bob Crowley; Lighting: Nick Chelton, Ric Mountjoy. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick); Orchestra of the English National Opera/Nicholas Collon (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Thursday 13 September 2013