Recently in Reviews
On May 25, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented a revival of the Herbert Ross production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La bohème. Stage director, Peter Kazaras, made use of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s wide stage by setting some scenes usually seen inside the garret on the surrounding roof instead.
On May 21, 2016, Ars Minerva presented The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles (Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate), an opera consisting of a prologue and three acts by seventeenth century Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino.
While Pegida anti-refugee demonstrations have been taking place for a while
now in Dresden, there was something noble about the Semperoper with its banners
declaring all are welcome, listing Othello, the Turk, and the hedon Papageno as
Opera houses’ neglect of Leoš Janáček remains one
of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the
‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas
would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa,
Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely
hook most for life.
It’s not easy for critics to hit the right note when they write about musical collaborations between students and professionals. We have to allow for inevitable lack of polish and inexperience while maintaining an overall high standard of judgment.
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on
Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so
given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to
see three different productions within little more than a couple of
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is
wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the
Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the
appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic
dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today,
‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in
genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s
Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The
Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and
further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic
term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
09 Dec 2012
Meyerbeer Robert le Diable, Royal Opera House
Why was Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable an overwhelming success in its time ? The Royal Opera House production suggests why: it's a cracking good show! Extreme singing, testing the limits of vocal endurance, and extreme drama. Robert le Diable is Faust, after all, not history, and here its spirit is captured by audacious but well-informed staging. Listen with an open mind and heart and imagine how audiences in Meyerbeer's time might have imagined the madness and magic that is Robert le diable.
Bryan Hymel is outstanding, singing the difficult, unusual part with exceptionally fluid, lyrical singing, the cruel tessitura negotiated with such strong technique that we hear the part, not the effort. He isn't simply displaying vocal skill, but infusing the part with greater psychological depth than the text itself suggests. That is true artistry. Opera is not singing alone, it is drama with music at its heart. The extremes Meyerbeer writes into the vocal line express Robert's tortured soul: Hymel makes them ring with emotional conviction. In the duet "Mon coeur s'élance et palpite", he almost steals the show though Isabelle has the killer high notes. Many other exquisite moments, like the Act Four "du magique rameau". Hymel, still only 33, is a voice to cherish.
The parts of Alice and Isabella are tours de force. Alice is a maid from Normandy, as the orchestra tells us with vaguely folk melodies. Although she carries a letter from Robert's mother she is not Micaëla whose love for Don José is tainted with possessiveness. Meyerbeer's audiences would have no trouble identifying Alice with Joan of Arc, another girl from Normandy who fought against all odds. Marina Poplavskaya's Alice is no bimbette, but a heroine worthy of Jeanne d'Arc herself.
Poplavskaya's voice soars clear over the orchestra in the tricky early parts of the opera. But it's in her confrontation with Bertram that she shows the intelligence she brings to the characterization. Poplavskaya reaches the horrendously high notes with clarity. Alice is direct, she doesn't make a fuss, so this intense portrayal is psychologically true. Yet it also refects the recurrent staccato in the music, and the thrusting, stabbing passages in the orchestra. The mock medieval battle in the text is outclassed by the cosmic battle for Robert's soul. Poplavskaya's Alice is lithe and energetic, for she's a swordsman duelling against death.
Isabella's two biggest arias, "Idole de ma vie" and "Robert, toi que je t'aime" define the word "show stopper". Done well, the audience is stunned and the action stops until applause subsides. That alone can make good theatre. In the Cavatina, the word "Grâce" is repeated in elaborate variations. Then the orchestra chimes in, provoking even greater feats of vocal gymnastics. You're left gasping. Patrizia Ciofi received much applause for standing in at the last moment. She's very experienced, having first taken the role more than ten years ago. Perhaps she'll slip back into gear as the run continues. She's excellent, but this is a role that needs heart shatteringly astonishing singing.
John Relyea sings Bertram's set piece arias at the end of Act Four impressively but he is no pantomime villain. Tellingly, he sings details like the recurrent "mon fils, mon fils" with gruff tenderness. He wants Robert because Robert is his son. Relyea's subtlety suggests why Bertram was once loved by the saintly Rosalie, Robert's mother. While Meyerbeer milked the plot for melodrama, there's room in the music for the depth Relyea brings to it.
Since many people know nothing of Meyerbeer other than Wagner's slander, our modern approach to Meyerbeer is distorted. Wagner was such a complex person that it's nonsense to take a simplistic view of the Wagner/Meyerbeer relationship. Alberich-like, Wagner attacked Meyerbeer, as if to downplay how much he owed him If Meyerbeer's use of the orchestra seems over the top to us, it's because we are thinking in Wagnerian terms. Meyerbeer extends his characterizations with motives that run through the opera like a thread - drinking songs, marches, Norman folk songs. Develop these further and call them Leitmotivs. He also uses the orchestra sparingly - harps around Isabella's angelic singing, brooding winds and brass around Bertram. The large orchestral flourishes are deftly done, and move the action forward, without overpowering - we want to hear those clear high vocal notes shine, after all.
If we free ourselves of Wagner snobbery, we can appreciate Robert le Diable's true place in music history. Its obvious antecedent is Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz and its direct descendant Berlioz The Damnation of Faust. All derive form the High Romantic fascination with Gothic fantasy and the occult. Meyerbeer may not be "modern" taste but that reflects on our awareness of period opera. Even Bach was largely forgotten until Mendelssohn championed his music. It's only in relatively recent decades that Rossini and Handel operas have enjoyed the respect they deserve. Perhaps the shadow of Wagner is so strong that we don't let ourselves enjoy Meyerbeer because we're too worried about what others might think.
We should bear this background in mind when assessing this Royal Opera House production, directed by Laurent Pelly with designs by Chantal Thomas and atmospheric lighting by Duane Schuler. This staging would go a long way towards a reasessment of Meyerbeer because it is well researched and erudite. The ballet, where the ghosts of dead nuns are seem rising from their graves, is based almost exactly on the original Paris designs. The etchings we see are also based on authentic period imagery. The huge revolving mountain that dominates the stage could come straight out of a Gothic painting or novel. To 19th century people, wild landscapes represented fear and superhuman forces. Think the Wolf's Glen in Der Freischütz.
Robert le Diable is melodrama, but by no means po-faced. Even Heinrich Heine noted that the plot wasn't great.
"Es ist ein großes Zauberstück
Voll Teufelslust und Liebe;
Von Meyerbeer ist die Musik,
Der schlechte Text von Scribe."
This staging is colourful because the music is colourful. How Meyerbeer's audiences must have thrilled to the sight of semi-naked nuns dancing lustfully. They would have enjoyed mock medieval pgeantry without worrying too much whether it was authentic. Our modern obssession with period-specific staging meant nothing to audiences who were used to seeing zany mixtures of period and style. Ironically, this is a much more authentic staging than many realise. In many ways, we are less open to the art of imagination now than our forebears were once. Why shouldn't we have as much fun as they did? Pelly and Thomas are giving us a chance to see the opera in context. We should value the chance to see this opera done in this way because chances are we won't get many opportunities since it's not at all an easy work to stage.
This ROH production is being recorded and filmed. BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting an audio version on Saturday 15th December (link here).