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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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.’
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).