Recently in Performances
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
18 Jun 2013
The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
This production marks the first London staging, though the honour of the first
staging went to Nancy’s Opéra national de Lorraine. It may be considered a
resounding success, perhaps all the more surprising given the paucity of
worthwhile comic operas. (The inability of stage directors to distinguish
between the comic and comedy as a form is one of the greatest banes of an
opera-goer’s life, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.)
Barry may have studied with Stockhausen but it is his study with Mauricio
Kagel that comes to mind here, in the work’s anarchic — though, in its
compositional control decidedly not anarchistic — irreverence. An almost
Dadaistic sensibility perhaps also brings to mind the Ligeti of Aventures
and Nouvelles aventures; smashing of plates, forty of them, must
surely offer a reference, perhaps even an hommage. Humour arises not
just from Wilde’s play and what Barry does with or to it, but also from the
interaction of ‘action’ and music, seemingly autonomous, until one has
decided that it is definitely is, at which point it tempts one to think that it
might have something in common with the text after all. Parody, for instance of
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whether its opening or the ‘Ode to Joy’, and
of Auld Lang Syne, almost inevitably recalls Peter Maxwell Davies, but
I am not sure that the method is actually so very similar. For one thing, it
seems more to be the tunes themselves that in some strange sense are forming
the drama; words at times follow Auld Lang Syne rather than vice
versa, resulting in a cyclical process one might — or might not —
consider to be a parody of serialism. (I did, but I have no idea whether that
were intended.) Stravinskian motor-rhythms power the music along, until it
stops — or are they still doing so? And just occasionally, the poster-paint
aggression — or is it an affectionate parody thereof? — seems to melt into
something more tender. But is that merely wish-fulfilment on the spectator’s
part? Is the joke on the audience?
Ramin Gray’s production seems to operate in a similar or at least parallel
fashion. There are interactions, for instance when the loudspeaker music plays
from Algernon’s iPhone. And the action is cut, stopped, made to continue
according to some ticking imperative. Moments impress, stick in the memory, for
instance the case of co-ordinated tea-drinking. One begins to ask what they
‘mean’, but already knows or at least fears that one is asking the wrong
question. Surrealism, or something like it, becomes genuinely funny. Or is it
that the funny becomes genuinely surreal? Modern dress works well, banishing
any thought that period ‘absurdity’ might heighten the farce, if that be
what it is. For disjuncture, by its very nature, continues to bring us up
short. Alienation, in work and in staging, both distances and yet brings us
tantalisingly close. For, despite or even on account of the artificiality, one
senses a deep humanity lying somewhere beneath. (Perhaps like Wilde; perhaps
The Britten Sinfonia under Tim Murray proves at least an equal partner to
the madness. Brashly rhythmic, lovingly precise, this is an estimable
performance throughout from an ensemble whose versatility seems yet to extend
itself with every year. That the players are called upon to shout and to stamp
their feet almost seems expected. Paul Curievici impresses with great
musicality as Jack Worthing, or whatever we want to call him, Benedict Nelson a
bluff foil as Algie. Hilary Summers, surely as versatile an artist as the
Britten Sinfonia, makes excellent use of her contralto range and tone as Miss
Prism, with a splendidly complementary stage gawkiness. Stephanie Marshall’s
Gwendolen and Ida Falk Winland’s Cecily shine on the mezzo and soprano
fronts, the former often warmly lyrical, the latter seemingly effortless in the
aggressively higher reaches of her range. Simon Wilding’s Lane and Merriman
offer a nice hint of rebellion, nevertheless handsomely despatched. Meanwhile,
Lady Bracknell is played by a bass, not in drag but in a suitably ghastly
barrister pinstripe; Alan Ewing rises to the occasion, and somehow seems more
real than much of the chaos around him. The cast, as the cliché has it, proves
more than the sum of its parts, as is the performance as a whole, however
awkward that fitting together or clashing of those parts may be.
Cast and production information:
John Worthing: Paul Curievici; Revd Canon Chasuble: Geoffrey Dolton;
Lady Brachnell: Alan Ewing; Gwendolen Fairfax: Stephanie Marshall; Algernon
Moncrieff: Benedict Nelson; Miss Prism: Hilary Summers; Lane/Merriman: Simon
Wilding; Cecily: Ida Falk WInland. Director: Ramin Gray; Associate Designer:
Ben Clark (after an idea by Johannes Schütz); Lighting: Franz Peter David;
Costumes: Christina Cunningham. Britten Sinfonia/Tim Murray. Linbury Studio
Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 17 June 2013.