Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

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.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

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.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

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: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘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.

Nabucco at Orange

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: Notturno

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.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

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.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

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.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

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.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

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?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

20 Jan 2013

Sir Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur ROH 2013

If, first time around, in 2008, The Minotaur offered the obvious excitement of the premiere, it was now noteworthy how quickly it had settled into repertory status. Not that it has yet been performed elsewhere than Covent Garden, though it should be as a matter of urgency, but that its 2013 outing proceeded with the apparent ease one might expect of, say, The Magic Flute or Carmen. That is surely testament both to the excellence of the performances we heard as well as to the stature of Birtwistle’s opera itself.

Though it packs an undoubted musico-dramatic punch, The Minotaur is not perhaps the overwhelming experience, the assault upon one’s faculties, offered by The Mask of Orpheus. It arguably stands a ‘late’ or at least ‘later’ work, somewhat simpler - these things are relative, of course - and more direct (ditto). The unbroken thread of the score, a metaphor for Ariadne’s own thread, brings the work closer to conventionally understood operatic tradition. This is a more linear work than many, for though Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, also play once again with ritual and repetition, re-telling is incorporated, expressed, almost Wagner-like, within an essentially linear narrative. The labyrinth, then, has order, clearly discernible, beyond the apparently senseless chaos of human-bestial existence, as symbolised in the person of the ‘half and half,’ Asterios the Minotaur. Whether to start here, with The Mask of Orpheus, with Gawain, with Punch and Judy, or elsewhere is not something about which to become unduly worked up; the choice would be akin to deciding or falling upon a Wagnerian baptism of fire with Tristan or the Shakespeare-like entrée of Die Meistersinger, and so on. It is difficult to imagine, however, that anyone with ears to hear and with the slightest curiosity would not be hooked; my immediate response upon emerging from the theatre was to hope that I should be able to find a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Reworkings of myth proceed in typical Birtwistle fashion, though here of course the credit is at least as much Harsent’s. An especially interesting idea is the presentation of the bull who mounted Pasiphae as Poseideon; the Minotaur is therefore perhaps Theseus’s half-brother. (We still do not know, nor does he, whether Theseus be the son of Poseidon or the son of Aegeus.) It is, moreover, an excellent touch to tantalise us with Theseus’s future abandonment of Ariadne; it is stressed that they will board the ship together, but it is equally noteworthy that no one foresees her reaching Athens. The orchestra, meanwhile, acts very much in neo-Wagnerian style as Chorus, shadowing, intensifying, commenting upon the action. Perhaps there is something of Bach in the well-nigh obbligato quality of the alto saxophone identified with Ariadne - who in this retelling becomes perhaps a more compromised, even ambiguous character. She is not always ‘straight’ with Theseus; she even attempts to trick Fate, both by moving a pebble from one hand to hand. It takes a second try, moreover, before she acts truthfully towards the Snake Priestess. Things could readily have turned out otherwise, then, or maybe not, if one believes in Fate. At any rate, thinking about such matters, experiencing them through the drama, is unavoidable.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved almost Classical, again contributing very much to the suspicion that this opera has already attained ‘classic’ status. With an orchestra and chorus on top form, the musical drama, incisive, ominous, gripping, beautifully melancholic, spoke, as the cliché would have it, for itself. There was no need for any extraneous ‘excitement’ to be applied from without; this was a far more fulfilling, musically-involving approach. The battery of percussion spoke, of course, but so did the steely yet malleable tones of orchestral woodwind, and not just the saxophone. Choral baiting of the Minotaur truly chilled our blood, just as others’ blood will be spilled on stage.

Christine Rice offered a heartfelt, conflicted Ariadne, Johan Reuter a stolid - but deliberately so - Theseus, his heroism thoughtfully questioned. John Tomlinson, celebrating an extraordinary thirty-five years on the Covent Garden stage, seems to have made the role of the Minotaur just as much as his own as he did the Green Knight in Gawain. (Salzburg’s new production this summer will almost inevitably feature him.) It is a part well suited to his advancing years. Vocal perfection is not required; it might even be out of place. But dramatic presence and integrity most definitely are; the tragic plight of a creature created and rejected so cruelly by ‘humanity’ was searingly portrayed. Andrew Watts again caused consternation with the mysterious archaic babble of the Snake Priestess, tellingly translated by another old Birtwistle hand, Alan Oke. Elisabeth Meister made an equally fantastic impression as the chilling Ker, feasting on the innocents’ blood; it is a screaming harpy-like role, but a musically screaming one, especially in this assumption. There was, in short, no weak link in the cast, and it is a very strong cast indeed.

Stephen Langridge’s staging tells the story with clarity, aided by Alison Chitty’s straightforward yet imaginative designs. I cannot help but retain a niggling doubt that a more adventurous production might have brought out a good number more dramatic strands than we see here. Something more Mask of Orpheus-like or indeed Soldaten-like might have alerted the audience to dramatic layers that went unseen, if certainly not unheard. By the same token, however, there is nothing wrong with expecting and/or permitting the audience to do some ‘aural thinking’ for itself. Let us hope, in any case, that before long there will be alternatives, which will expand our imaginative understanding of the work.

Programme essays were for the most part particularly informative, pieces by Rhian Samuel and David Beard especially so, though it is slightly odd to read Samuel referring to The Mask of Orpheus as ‘Birtwistle’s early opera’; ‘earlier’ perhaps? Moreover, Ruth Padel’s piece is simply incorrect to claim that ‘Monteverdi’s first opera was Arianna’; It was of course Orfeo. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from the contributions taken as a whole. How splendid, then, to experience the Royal Opera House very much back on form - and on form in so many ways.

Mark Berry

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):