30 May 2013
Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
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. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
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.
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. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
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.
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.
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.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
With ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal, whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring (Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder) and Tannhäuser (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once again in Wagner.
Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger — not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it — received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward incomprehension Antonio Pappano had shown conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to Furtwängler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into account, it was an undistinguished performance.
Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude and the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents - even Furtwängler and Boulez have followed the practice - to my ears it jars. That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly not plumbing any Furtwänglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish ‘Bravo!’ should be consigned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s anniversary year.
The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walküre. It is not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well, with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end was to have Brünnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd: neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it, there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone production was often rather woolly too.
Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the Walküre act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much more, as do the Proms.
Cast and production information:
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Prelude to Act One; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’; Die Walküre: Act Three. Isolde, Brünnhilde: Susan Bullock; Sieglinde : Giselle Allen; Wotan: James Rutherford; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Gerhilde: Mariya Krywaniuk; Siegrune: Magdalen Ashman; Grimgerde: Antonia Sotgiu; Ortlinde: Elaine McKrill; Waltraute: Jennifer Johnston; Rossweisse: Maria Jones; Schwertleite: Miriam Sharrad. David Edwards (director); David Holmes (lighting). Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (director). Royal Festival Hall, 22 May 2013.