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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.