Recently in Performances
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
30 Jun 2013
Bizet : Pearl Fishers, Opera Holland Park London
Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers confirms the composer’s deftness in penning a good tune and spinning a faux-Oriental orchestral fabric. But, opera is more than simply a catchy melody or two, and if it wasn’t for the tenor-baritone friendship duet ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’, the opera’s one-dimensional characters and dramatic stiltedness would probably see it consigned to the drawer marked ‘lesser-known, justly neglected’.
Set in ancient Ceylon, among dirt-poor fisher-folk, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s libretto offered Bizet an evocative exotic locale but little by way of dramatic interest or momentum.
We begin on a desolate shore, where the eponymous pearl-divers sing of the dangers and destitution which they face, praying for protection and performing ritual dances to fend off evil spirits. ‘Conflict’ is introduced when the recently re-united comrades, Zurga, the head fisherman, and Nadir, find themselves re-living an old rivalry for the beautiful virgin priestess, Leila - a rivalry that they had formerly renounced in the name of eternal brotherhood. Leila is herself torn between her sacred vows to Brahma - impressed upon her by the high priest Nourabad and which she must fulfil to ensure the fishermen’s safety - and her rekindled secular passion for Nadir. Raging jealousy leads Zurga to condemn the lovers to death, but anger is followed by remorse and finally mercy when Zurga recognises Leila, somewhat improbably, as the woman who had sheltered him when he was a fugitive. As the villagers fight to save their homes from an inferno which has engulfed them, Zurga releases the couple and urges them to flee.
Such a limp, cliché-ridden tale needs an injection of dramatic energy from its director. Oliver Platt and his designer Colin Richmond adopt a minimalist approach in this new production for Opera Holland Park, which looks pretty but generates little tension or sultry heat.
The bare stage is suffused with aquamarine light, and onto this Sri Lankan shore flood the villagers, bedecked in vibrant, multi-coloured costumes. A silky sheet billows sumptuously, serving to evoke sun, sand and, later, storm-tossed sail. It looks richly ‘authentic’; but, just as Bizet’s score somewhat disconcertingly juxtaposes a bevy of musical styles from East and West, so the fine-voiced chorus don’t quite pass as poverty-struck fishermen. Katharine Ryan’s choreography is uninspiring and at times inert; the ceremonial dances are hackneyed and in general the stage movements are rather amateur. Which is a pity as the Opera Holland Park chorus are on terrific form, vehemently ringing out their hymn ‘Brahma divin Brahma!’ to quell the storm which ends Act 2, and urgently awaiting the double execution as the dawn approaches, ‘Dès que le soleil’ in the final Act.
So much depends on the four leads and, fortunately for Platt, the soloists here tell the story clearly and with conviction. Australian baritone Grant Doyle was a characterful Zurga, establishing a powerful stage presence and alert to every dramatic gesture and detail. While not always secure at the top, Doyle sang with a credible dark tone and rich warmth, particularly in his Act 3 aria, ‘L’orage est calmé’ as both the natural tempest and his own anger quieten.
Jung Soo Yun was rather wooden initially as Nadir, but he warmed up and the South Korean tenor’s appealing lyrical brightness blended beautifully with Doyle in their renowned duet. His delicate, well-controlled falsetto was sweetly beguiling.
As the mysterious priestess Leila, Greek-Canadian soprano Soula Parassidis was befittingly glamorous, richly swathed in silks and veil, and glossily toned of voice. Combining a gleaming timbre with lightness and flexibility, Parassidis dispatched the French coloratura effortlessly, and with technical precision and assurance. Throughout she used her voice expressively, powerfully communicating character and feeling.
Making up the quartet of soloists, Keel Watson was an authoritative, imposing High Priest.
The small forces of the City of London Sinfonia summoned up a surprisingly rich array of tints and shades under the proficient baton of Matthew Waldren. The woodwind and string soloists rose admirably to their respective challenges and there was some wonderfully soft playing from the horns.
So, go along for the good tunes. The drama may lack credibility and sincerity, but the melodies delight and there is no doubting the singers’ conviction.