22 May 2013
Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
In Ultz’s recreation of post-war Windsor — a fitting setting for a year in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — suburban mock-Tudor has replaced the genuine article but it’s a familiar world populated, much as in the historic past, by down-on-their-luck aristocrats and aspiring social climbers. There are nods forwards as well as backwards: the regimented cabbage plots amid the middle-class semis call to mind that prior ‘age of austerity’, when the ‘Dig For Victory’ mentality was as common as ‘Grow Your Own’ economising is today.
We begin in a rather genteel, wood-panelled local saloon bar, The Garter Inn; a portrait of George VI and an extravagantly antlered stag’s head oversee proceedings — a reminder of the class tensions and cuckoldry which will disturb the bourgeois complacency. Centre-stage sprawls Falstaff, ardently typing amorous missives, audaciously and insouciantly adding to his alcohol tab, and flamboyantly issuing commands to his senseless sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola.
Laurent Naouri’s Sir John is imposingly wide of girth — thanks to an impressive fat-suit — and generously resounding of voice. His authoritative bellow vanquishes complaints from his snivelling underlings; with beguiling tone, he serenades and courts the ladies. There is no doubting his haughty bumptiousness and Naouri emphasises his essential aristocratic dignity. But, at times this Falstaff is overly curmudgeonly, aggrieved that others do not recognise his ‘nobility’ — an anachronistic note in 1950s England — and his irritability and crabbiness do not endear him. Naouri is light on his feet, despite the prodigious abdominal encumbrance, and can neatly execute a dainty flounce. But, while the voice is sweet and enticing, this Falstaff lacks a certain wicked sparkle in the eye and the debonair charm that might win a feminine heart regardless of his physical decrepitude. Falstaff should be both dignified and vulgar, both arrogant and aware of his own coarseness and comic crassness — he should laugh at himself, so that we can laugh with him.
Part of the problem is Jones’ uncharacteristic lack of attention to comic detail and gesture; there are a few neat touches — the faux leave-taking courtesies of Ford and Falstaff, the obsequious pleading for forgiveness of the perfidious Bardolfo and Pistola, the tidal wave which bursts through the Fords’ front window when Falstaff tumbles from the window ledge and belly-flops into the Thames — but most of the audience laughter was prompted by the surtitles rather than the stage action itself (excepting the feline wriggles of the furry puppet adorning the Garter’s bar-top). The lengthy pauses between scenes, necessitated by some hefty scene-shifting, further diminished the comic briskness. The sets themselves are neat and credible, and troupes of rowing eights and girl guides add to the period feel — although they have little relevance to the drama itself. Three such scouts cross-stitch the local panorama across the front cloth before curtain-up, but it’s stretching things somewhat to ask us to imagine that they have won their needlepoint brownie badges creating a tapestry screen of Windsor Castle to adorn Alice Ford’s morning room. The latter is rather sparsely decorated, leaving few opportunities for chaotic concealment in what should be a farcical man-hunt for the lascivious Falstaff during his lecherous assignation in Act 2.
Elena Tsallagova, Ailyn Perez, Susanne Resmark and Lucia Cirillo
The huge oak in the final scene is impressively anthropomorphic and, swathed in unnatural colours by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, casts eerie, dancing shadows. But, the scene is poorly choreographed, the stage overly cluttered, and the ghoulish, lurid Halloween costumes — bought, presumably, at the high-street Joke Shop depicted in the previous scene — sported by the boy scouts and brownies are at odds with the Shakespearean mood of enchantment and magic. More ‘trick or treat’ than Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ultimately, these flaws in the staging do not overly trouble us, for there is not a single weak link in the cast. Making her Glyndebourne debut, American soprano Ailyn Pérez was a self-possessed and spirited Alice Ford. Never histrionic but always secure in her self-belief, Pérez’ golden voice soared lyrically; at times slyly coy, she commanded the stage with ease. Susanne Resmark as Mistress Quickly, purposefully attired in an Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, demonstrated masterly comic timing, particularly in her scenes with Falstaff — tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she relished the ironic resonances of the mocking salutation, ‘with respect’.
Russian baritone Roman Burdenko was a proud, indignant Ford; Falstaff may be the one with the title, but Burdenko’s powerful yet elegant delivery left no doubt about his own sense of entitlement. In this production, Fenton is a GI, and the Italian tenor, Antonio Poli exuded freshness and optimism, although he was surpassed in graceful airiness by Elena Tsallagova as Nanetta, whose angelic faerie supplication in Act 3 was the musical highlight of the evening. Lucia Cirillo was a fiery Meg; Graham Clark as Dr Caius, and Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia — Bardolfo and Pistola respectively — completed the fine line-up.
Conducting much of the score from memory, Mark Elder led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a crisp but warm account, alert to every detail and unfailingly conjuring deft musical humour even when the stage action was less buoyant. The sombre, slightly melancholic tone of the natural horns coupled with the darker gut string timbre, made for an unusual but convincing musical colour. There was much fine playing and the instrumentalists fully captured the conviviality and essential geniality of the work; they richly deserved their ovation.
Cast and production information:
Falstaff: Laurent Naouri; Alice Ford: Ailyn Pérez; Ford: Roman Burdenko; Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo; Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark; Nannetta: Elena Tsallagova; Fenton: Antonio Poli; Dr Cajus: Graham Clark; Bardolfo: Colin Judson; Pistola: Paolo Battaglia; Conductor Mark Elder; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; The Glyndebourne Chorus; Director Richard Jones; Revival Director Sarah Fahie; Designer Ultz; Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Glyndebourne Festival, Sunday, 19th May 2013.