Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Covent Garden’s Otello: Superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

Saint Cecilia: The Sixteen at Kings Place

There were eighteen rather than sixteen singers. And, though the concert was entitled Saint Cecilia the repertoire paid homage more emphatically to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and to the spirit of Christmas.

Insights on Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen

At the Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide in a recital of Schubert and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder. Schuen has most definitely arrived, at least among the long-term cognoscenti at the Wigmore Hall who appreciate the intelligence and sensitivity that marks true Lieder interpretation.

Ermelinda by San Francisco's Ars Minerva

It’s an opera by Vicentino composer Domenico Freschi that premiered in 1681 at the country home of the son of the doge of Venice. Villa Contarini is a couple of hours on horseback from Vicenza, and a few hours by gondola from Venice).

Wozzeck in Munich

It would be an extraordinary, even an unimaginable Wozzeck that failed to move, to chill one to the bone. This was certainly no such Wozzeck; Marie’s reading from the Bible, Wozzeck’s demise, the final scene with their son and the other children: all brought that particular Wozzeck combination of tears and horror.

Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Munich

I approached this evening as something of a sceptic regarding work and director. My sole prior encounter with Simon Stone’s work had not been, to put it mildly, a happy one. Nor do I count myself a subscriber or even affiliate to the Korngold fan club, considerable in number and still more considerable in fervency.

Exceptional song recital from Hurn Court Opera at Salisbury Arts Centre

Thanks to the enterprise and vision of Lynton Atkinson - Artistic Director of Dorset-based Hurn Court Opera - two promising young singers on the threshold of glittering careers gave an outstanding recital at Salisbury’s prestigious Art Centre.

Lohengrin in Munich

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald.

Hansel and Gretel in San Francisco

This Grimm’s fairytale in its operatic version found its way onto the War Memorial stage in the guise of a new “family friendly” production first seen last holiday season at London’s Royal Opera House.

An hypnotic Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House

Spot-lit in the prevailing darkness, Gustav von Aschenbach frowns restively as he picks up an hour-glass from a desk strewn with literary paraphernalia, objects d’art, time-pieces and a pair of tall candles in silver holders - by the light of which, so Thomas Mann tells us in his novella Death in Venice, the elderly writer ‘would offer up to art, for two or three ardently conscientious morning hours, the strength he had garnered during sleep’.

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Rapt audience at Dutch National Opera’s riveting Walküre

“Don’t miss this final chance – ever! – to see Die Walküre”, urges the Dutch National Opera website.

Sarah Wegener sings Strauss and Jurowski’s shattering Mahler

A little under a month ago, I reflected on Vladimir Jurowski’s tempi in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. That willingness to range between extremes, often within the same work, was a very striking feature of this second concert, which also fielded a Mahler symphony - this time the Fifth. But we also had a Wagner prelude and Strauss songs to leave some of us scratching our heads.

Manon Lescaut in San Francisco

Of the San Francisco Opera Manon Lescauts (in past seasons Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni, Karita Mattila among others, all in their full maturity) the latest is Armenian born Parisian finished soprano Lianna Haroutounian in her role debut. And Mme. Haroutounian is surely the finest of them all.

A lukewarm performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette from the LSO and Tilson Thomas

A double celebration was the occasion for a packed house at the Barbican: the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra.

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):