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 Performances

Dolora Zajick Premieres Composition

At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.

Santa Fe Opera Presents Huang Ruo's Sun Yat-sen

By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.

Britten War Requiem - Andris Nelsons, CBSO, BBC Prom 47

In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.

Santa Fe Opera Presents an Imaginative Carmen

Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.

Elgar Sea Pictures : Alice Coote, Mark Elder Prom 31

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.

Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms

Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.

Four countertenors : Handel Rinaldo Glyndebourne

Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.

Santa Fe Opera Presents The Impresario and Le Rossignol

On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.

Barber in the Beehive State

Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.

Stravinsky : Oedipus Rex, BBC Proms

In typical Proms fashion, BBC Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo,was making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Santa Fe Opera Presents a Passionate Fidelio

Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Rameau Grand Motets, BBC Proms

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17.

Adriana Lecouvreur, Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

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.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.

Count Ory, Dead Man Walking
and La traviata in Des Moines

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.

Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, BBC Proms

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.

Donizetti and Mozart, Jette Parker Young Artists Royal Opera House, London

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.

Glyndebourne's Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, BBC Proms

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.

Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]
17 Feb 2013

Charpentier’s Medea at ENO

In 1704, 11 years after its first performance in 1693 before the royal court of Louis XIV, and 17 years after the death of Lully — and at a time when the relative merits of respective French and Italian aesthetics were constantly and fiercely being debated — Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée was condemned by the ‘Lullist’ faction, who were determined to defend their leader’s guardianship of the tragédie en musique, as an ‘abomination’: hard, dry and characterised by excess.

Charpentier’ Medea at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]

 

Despite the repeated bestowal of royal favour and attendance at the few performances which followed the 1693 premiere before the Académie Royale de Musique, the opera was rapidly consigned to relative oblivion and has remained neglected, languishing in obscurity ever since. This ENO production is the first UK staging of a work which is undoubtedly one of Charpentier’s most ambitious and impressive secular scores.

David McVicar’s new production for ENO seeks to integrate the timelessness of Classical myth with a 1904s milieu — the latter providing a specificity with which modern audiences may engage — and thereby to underline both the universality and contemporary relevance of Charpentier’s and Corneille’s gruesome tale of ruthless revenge and pitiless bloodshed.

So, a seventeenth-century chateau — notable for its typically elegant pastel symmetry and gracious artifice — has been commanded for the 1940s war effort, and various personnel of the armed and naval forces stride through the polished halls, deliberating and manoeuvring, as love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal engage in a mythic battle to the death. Studio lights and other period details remind us of the 40s setting; yet courtly conventions and postmodernist motifs are effortlessly elided, the naturalistic interiors endowed with an eerily symbolic resonance by Paule Constable’s atmospheric, figurative lighting. Thus, the cold, clear light of day fade to the equivocal mists of night, and the crystalline world of combat merges with the murkier machinations of the diversionary distractions of aristocratic entertainment. The gorgeous reflective floor offers both realistic mirror images and impressionistic, suggestive reflections and intimations.

Eschewing the da capo aria model of Italian opera seria, Charpentier creates more fluid musical and vocal structures derived from the five-act form of the French classical tragedy of Corneille and Racine; and, McVicar effects a correspondently fluent dramatic movement within the confines of Bunny Christie’s beautifully evocative sets, as dramatic action merges with divertissement, and recitative blends into arioso then coalesces into more formalised aria.

Christie’s arresting costumes effectively reinforce the subjugation of the eponymous protagonist, the freedom of movement of the members of the female cast being alternately confined by restrictive, thigh-gripping pencil skirts and toe-pinching stilettos, then liberated by spangly hot-pants and fish-nets for the delectation of the powerful and voyeuristic military elite.

Although the Prologue, with its discrete contemporary political intent, is sensibly omitted, McVicar resists the temptation to exclude those elements of the score which others might deem un-dramatic and irrelevant: thus, the elements of spectacle — the ballet de cours with its extravagant costumes and scenic effects, the formal dances and elaborate divertissements — are intelligently and convincingly incorporated, smoothly dove-tailed with the scenes for the principals.

That said, the more abstract interpretations of the final three acts are more compelling than the heavily stylised end-of-act frivolities of the first two acts. The Act 2 divertissement to celebrate the arrival of the nubile Creusa — with its sequinned, star-studded plane, diva-esque posturing and nautical buffoonery — is a little too reminiscent of Flying Down to Rio or the stylised hamming of South Pacific. But, the demonic diversions of a snarling Vengeance, resentful Jealousy and aggrieved crowd of demons who poisonously bewitch the golden dress destined for Creusa, are fittingly disconcerting; similarly, the insubstantial phantoms which defeat Creon’s armed guard in Act 4 exemplify the choreographic approach of Lynne Page: namely, to present extremes of emotional excess expressed within controlled formal structures.

Inevitably the success of a production of this opera will rest disproportionately on its Medea. According to the classical myth, Medea has made a considerable personal sacrifice to enable her beloved Jason to win the Golden Fleece, and now disowned and exiled, she suspects that Jason’s affections have waned, as he is increasingly enamoured of Creusa, the daughter of King Créon of Corinth, who has given Jason and Medea refuge.

In an opera peopled by morally frail, dishonest men, Sarah Connolly portrays Medea as a powerful heroine driven by a combination of fiery anger, eloquent finesse and sharp intelligence. From the opening of Act 1 the profound depths of her character are evident: her passionate love, her jealousy, her pride, her tenderness. It is the powers at her command which set her apart, as is evident in the pulsing accompaniment of her first recitative and the tempestuous cascading string lines which frame it. Her softer side is revealed in Act 2, accompanied by strings and dulcet recorders, preparing us for the pathos of her brutal, inhuman murder of her children in order to inflict pain upon the man who has rejected her.

Connolly’s compassion as a mother was evident throughout Act 2, and her powerful soliloquies in Act 3, when she laments Jason’s betrayal and the futility of her love and loyalty, evoked tender empathy in the audience, before her invocation of Satanic darkness injected her thoughtfulness with a terrifying, nihilistic blackness, inspiring both terror and wonder. In her aria-moments Connolly combined warm, shapely lyricism with an elegant declamation of the text, ever alert to Charpentier’s unique arioso which is itself responsive to both word and affekt.

There are moments of great pathos in McVicar’s realisation of this horrifying myth: few could fail to be moved when Medea’s pitiable, pyjama-clad children clutch onto their mother as her raging fury feeds on its own embers and she acknowledges that they must die to fulfil her shocking craving for retribution. But, McVicar never lapses into melodrama. Although a terrible vengeance is wreaked through the final act, he and Connolly sustain an appalling Classical restraint: Medea looks on as her former lovers, friends and rivals futilely resist the agonies she has ordained, while she, clad in Hecatian black, rises aloft, indifferent to their human anguish.

The light, clear tenor of Jeffrey Francis, as Jason, conveyed the bright buoyancy and naive optimism of the ‘conquering hero’ who is full of pride and glowing with his own achievements. His set pieces were characterised by the sunny grace of the air de cours. However, Francis’s rather stilted tenor lacked flexibility and the capacity for subtle development of character; and he did not wholly convince as a man torn between the love for mother of his children and his new, unfamiliar feelings for Creusa — a man almost reluctantly lured into deceit against both Medea and Oronte.

Katherine Manley’s Creusa was a revelation; after the light-weight self-indulgence of Act 2, and the shocking intimations of an incestuous relationship with her father, King Creon, Manley increasingly projected her character’s pathetic and tragic essence, particularly in Act 4, where Charpentier’s harmonic piquancies reveal the condemnatory curse of the poisonous golden gown she has coveted. Her duet with Jason in Act 5 was an almost unbearably poignant lament of nobility as Manley affectingly conveyed the sweetness in ‘agony’ and the bitterness of death, revealing an ability to combine musical delicacy with powerful dramatic presence.

As Oronte, Roderick Williams was characteristically honest and engaging, conveying the evolving psychology of Oronte, who undoubtedly loves Creusa but who comes to understand that no act of revenge will gain him Creusa’s true devotion. Brindley Sherratt’s Creon was a disturbing composite of manipulative menace and vulnerable emotional infirmity. Nerina is a difficult role to carry off, as she alternatively incites and seeks to calm her mistress’s jealousy; but, Rhian Lois lingered and crept menacingly and meaningfully in the shadows and sang with expressive clarity.

Conductor Christian Curnyn was consistently alert to Charpentier’s sudden shifts of pace and colour and relished the startlingly violent contrasts of the score; even with just a small ensemble of modern strings, theorbos and harpsichords at his disposal, Curnyn produced diverse colours and textures, nowhere more so than during Medea’s malignant Act 3 sorcery, where the dark string tones enhanced the satanic menace. I’m not sure that the relatively small forces were able to make a full impact in the cavernous hall, but Curnyn coaxed a full string sound, underpinned by a deep, resonant basse violine timbre, supplemented by sweet recorder duets. The dissonant tartness of Charpentier’s rich harmonic language was used to effectively underpin the psychological development of the characters.

McVicar’s presents a subtle and touching reading of a first rank opera, characterised by some exceptionally crafted vocal performances — musical theatre at its best.

Claire Seymour

Cast and Production Information

Sarah Connolly, Medea; Jeffrey Francis, Jason; Brindley Sherratt, Creon; Katherine Manley, Creusa/Phantom I; Roderick Williams, Oronte; Rhian Lois, Nerna; Aoife O’Sullivan, Cloenis; Oliver Dunn, Arcas; John McMunn, Corinthian/Jealousy; Sophie Junker, Italian Woman/Phantom II; Jeremy Budd, Corinthian/Argive; Ewan Guthrie and Harry Collins, Medea’s sons; Christian Curnyn, conductor; David McVicar, director; Bunny Christie, designer; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Lynne Page, choreographer. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Friday 15th February 2012.

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):