Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.