Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.

La Rondine Swoops Into St. Louis

If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Emmeline a Stunner in Saint Louis

Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Luminous Handel in Saint Louis

For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”

Two Women in San Francisco

Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?

Les Troyens in San Francisco

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.

Dog Days at REDCAT

On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.

Opera Las Vegas Presents Exquisite Madama Butterfly

Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.

Yardbird, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.

Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Glyndebourne

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.

German Lieder Is Given a Dramatic Twist by The Ensemble for the Romantic Century

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.

Intermezzo, Garsington Opera

Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.

The Queen of Spades, ENO

Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]
01 May 2013

The Damnation of Faust, London

Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.

Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]

 

In their performance of the complete work at London's Royal Festival Hall on 30 April 2013, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought Berlioz's dramatic legend to life with a very fine quartet of soloists, Ruxandra Donose, Paul Groves, Benedict Nelson and Willard White, and the London Symphony Chorus. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, whose passion for the music of Berlioz was so important to its re-discovery in the 20th century.

La Damnation de Faust was a complete failure at its premiere in 1846 at the Opera Comique. Berlioz had been obsessed with Goethe's Faust ever since reading part one, in Gerard de Nerval's translation, in 1828. The result was his Opus 1, "Eight Scenes from Faust", and it was these that were eventually transformed into the compete La Damnation de Faust, with Berlioz writing his own text for Faust's invocation to nature in Part 4.

He transposed the location of Part 1 to Hungary so that he could include his Rákóczi March which had been a great success on concert tour in 1845. There are a number of other orchestra show-pieces in the work. Though Berlioz did not stretch the musical form as far as he would with Romeo et Juliette, he still produced a work which used the orchestra as an extra character in the drama and which gave the orchestra a starring role. The work left its first audience confused, and it wasn't until 1893 at the Opera de Montecarlo that anyone tried to stage it.

From the first notes of Charles Dutoit's performance it was clear that we were not going to need a staging. Dutoit drew playing of great beauty and great flexibility from his orchestra (he is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the RPO). There were a lot of them, 60 strings in all with triple woodwind. There was a nice sheen to the quiet playing, but a feeling of attention to detail to. Dutoit is a very alive conductor, clearly alert to every moment and he brought out all of the different layers of Berlioz's superb scoring. Granted there were some fine solo contributions (the viola in the King of Thule aria and the glorious cor anglais solo in "D'amour l'ardente flamme") but what impressed was the quality of every moment of the playing. This wasn't sheer look-at-me brilliance, but a rich subtlety devoted to Berlioz's music.

Dutoit often took a relaxed attitude to speeds, but this was very much a performance of vivid contrast with some passages being taken at quite a pace. There was a lovely bounce to all of the rhythmic passages in the orchestra, everything was alive and vivid.

The role of Faust is rather an impossible one. It is the style of early 19th century French tenor which requires power and flexibility in a high tessitura which combines in a killing combination. Flexible lyric tenors can sound underpowered at the crucial moments, dramatic tenors can lack the flexibility and the necessary ease at the top of the stave. In 1893 at Montecarlo the role was sung by Jean de Reske, a tenor who combined singing Tristan and Siegfried with Gounod's Faust and Romeo, a combination well nigh unimaginable nowadays.

Paul Groves seems to make a speciality of these combinations of power, focus and clarity of line. Recent roles have included the killer tenor part in Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide his performances and recording of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius have managed to evoke a lost tradition of tenor singing. At the Royal Festival Hall, his use of his score was minimal and he delivered a highly dramatically involved performance. It was clear that he was having to do some management of his voice in the higher passages, but he delivered a performance was was admirable for his clarity of line and beauty of tone. He brought the sort of nasal intensity to the line which is very French, very necessary and so rarely achieved.

Whilst, perhaps, we might have imagined a more relaxed voice in some of the quieter moments, in the moments of rapture such as the invocation to nature, Groves brought in power reserves whilst still preserving the essential integrity of the voice, he never opened up in an Italianate way. Here, I must bring in one criticism of Dutoit, who seemed to take no account of any potential balance problems. There were moments when Dutoit could have made life a little easier for Groves and for Willard White.

Willard White playing Mefistopheles, one of his signature roles, was a miracle. The singer is now in his mid-sixties but apart from a hint of occasional fogginess at the top his voice is still in a superb state. And he certainly knows how to use it. Barely looking at his score, White was acting the role of Mefistopheles even when not singing. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the stalls, so could see clearly how White constantly used his eyes, and his whole body. White's Mefistopheles was certainly not a comic figure, he was blackly sardonic and rather formidable. His dark, chocolatey sounding voice is perfect for this role, especially as he can move it around with relative ease, making a delight of the lighter moments.

He and Groves developed a good rapport so that the dialogue moments were well realised, moments of drama as vivid as what was happening in the orchestra.

Ruxandra Donose was a beautifully modulated Marguerite. She was profoundly touching in the King of Thule aria, shaping the phrases quite beautifully. She has a rather soft-grained voice and this added to the impression of the rather nice girl in too deep. She combined with Groves to give a flexibly impassioned account of the love duet, whilst never quite matching Groves for sheer intensity. Her performance of D'amour l'ardente flamme was lovely and rather moving, as far as it went. But if you have heard someone like Regine Crespin singing the aria, then you know that it is possible to bring far more intense pain into the piece. Donose seemed to stay within the envelope of a beautiful voice and I wanted her to push things a little more.

Young British baritone Benedict Nelson sang the role of Brander, giving us a well shaped performance of the aria, full of lovely tone.

The London Symphony Chorus were on strong form, responding to Dutoit's direction and giving us a lively and highly involved performance. I did rather think, though, that there were occasional moments when the details were a little smudgier than they might have been. But at the big moments, such as the Pandemonium, we were treated to choral tone of a glorious amplitude. For the final scene, the chorus was joined by the New London Childrens Chorus, who added their voices to the beauty of the moment.

Given this extravagance, it seems odd that Dutoit did not follow Berlioz's request with regard to the harps. Though there are only two harp parts in the score, for this final scene Berlioz requests four or five harps on each part. I have heard it performed so, when Mark Elder performed the work at the Proms in the late 1980's (when I was singing in the chorus). The result is brilliantly magical and its a shame that Dutoit and RPO deprived us of it. Still, what we did hear was glorious enough and provided a magical end to a fine evening.

It was good to hear the RPO back on form, and under Charles Dutoit giving a fine account of one of Berlioz's great scores.

Robert Hugill

Click here for cast and production information.

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):