Recently in Performances
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.
10 Nov 2012
Oliver Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Marking Oliver Knussen’s sixtieth birthday came a BBC Total Immersion
weekend at the Barbican: a double-bill of Knussen’s two operas written in
collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and
Higgledy Piggledy Pop! on Saturday, followed by a day of two chamber
concerts, a film, and an orchestral concert conducted by the composer himself
This co-production of the two operas with the Aldeburgh Festival and
the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association was a delight. Netia Jones employs a
cunning, loving mix of animation and live action to retain as much as humanly
possible of Sendak’s celebrated drawings. Sometimes we see more of one than
the other, though the principal characters — the boy Max in Where the
Wild Things Are and Jennie the Sealyham Terrier in Higglety Pigglety
Pop! — are ‘real’ throughout. How much lies their — or our? —
imagination? What is real anyway? The use of animation for the monsters save at
the beginning and end of the first opera — we see the singers go behind a
screen and emerge at the end, and of course we hear the, throughout —
heightens our questioning. The screen in neatly reversed in Higglety
Pigglety Pop! so that we see the secondary characters both on stage and on
film. Again, what is real? Are not both varieties of apparition and/or
depiction? In the land of the Mother Goose World Theatre, all the world’s a
stage — a tribute, surely, as much to Stravinsky and his Rake’s
Progress tribute to Mozart, the latter parodied in Knussen’s final
scene, as to Ravel. (Both Higglety and Don Giovanni end
'outside' their dramas, in bright if tarnished D major.) The repetitions of
that gala performance, the time-honoured tradition of a play within a play,
unsettle as they should. What do they mean? When will they stop? Again, what,
and who, is ‘real’? That is very much the stuff of imaginary worlds,
strongest for some in childhood, but for many of us just as powerful in
subsequent stages of our lives.
Crucially, the sense of fantasy in libretto and production is at the very
least equally present in Knussen’s scores, kinship with Ravel especially
apparent in Where the Wild Things Are. And we all know who composed
the most perfect operatic depiction of childhood. Stravinsky sometimes seems
close too, for instance in the fiercer rhythmically driven music of the second
scene (Mama and her hoover), the Symphony in Three Movements coming to
my mind. And the musical material itself of course delightfully pays tribute
both to Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux and most memorably to
Boris Godunov, direct quotation reminiscing of the Tsar’s ill-fated
coronation when Max is crowned King of all Wild Things.
A scene from Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Ryan Wigglesworth’s direction was palpably alive to this sense of
orchestral wonder and fantasy, his programme notes an exemplary tribute from
one composer-conductor to another from whom he has learned a great deal. The
tone of performance darkened in tandem with that of the score for Higglety
Pigglety Pop! Detail was meaningful without exaggeration, for instance in
the subtle pointing up of certain intervals associated with different
characters. Those with ears to hear would do so, consciously or otherwise.
Moreover, the orchestra’s response was as assured, as disciplined, as
generous as the conductor’s direction. The Britten Sinfonia was throughout on
outstanding form, thoroughly inside Knussen’s idiom, unfailingly precise
without sacrifice to warmth of tone. Despite relatively chamber-like forces, at
least in the string section (184.108.40.206.4), one often felt that was hearing a
larger orchestra, for this was anything but a small-scale performance. Indeed,
accustomed as I am to hearing the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican,
there were many times when I should not have been surprised to discover that I
had in fact been hearing the LSO.
Claire Booth headed a fine cast for Where the Wild Things Are, her
Max as quicksilver on stage as vocally. Lucy Schaufer proved every inch her
equal as Jennie in Higglety Pigglety Pop! Very much the singing
actress, her deeper mezzo tones were perfectly suited to the darkened tones of
the score. There is something a little dangerous about Jennie and the acting
world of ‘experience’ for which she forsakes her comfortable home — yet
in a sense all children must at some point act similarly. All members of the
two casts, however, were richly deserving of praise, a particular favourite of
mine Graeme Danby’s surreal, apparently innocent Pig-in-Sandwich-Boards.
These performances came across as true company efforts, a state of affairs
doubtless deepened by ‘experience’ in Aldeburgh and Los Angeles.
Where the Wild Things Are
Max: Claire Booth; Mama/Voice of Tzippy: Susan Bickley; Moishe: Christopher
Lemmings; Emil: Graeme Broadbent; Aaron: Jonathan Gunthorpe; Bernard: Graeme
Danby; Tzippy: Charlotte McDougall
Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Jane: Lucy Schaufer; The Potted Plant/Baby: Susanna Andersson; Rhoda/Voice
of Baby’s Mother: Claire Booth; Cat-Milkman/High Voice of Ash Tree:
Christopher Lemmings; Pig-in-Sandwich-Boards: Graeme Danby; Lion/Low Voice of
Ash Tree: Graeme Broadbent
Netia Jones (director, designs); Britten Sinfonia/Ryan Wigglesworth
(conductor). Barbican Hall, Saturday 3 November 2012.