20 Jul 2013
Capriccio, Royal Opera
‘Wort oder Ton?’ may be the Countess’s question, but it is far from the only question asked in, let alone by, Capriccio.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
‘Wort oder Ton?’ may be the Countess’s question, but it is far from the only question asked in, let alone by, Capriccio.
La Roche, for instance, introduces the rival element of the stage — and seems, by the force of his panegyric alone, to have won everyone over. (Not, of course that that brief meeting of minds and souls whole; once discussion of the opera begins, æsthetic and personal bickering resume.) The question of staging inevitably came to mind, here, of course, given the curious decision to present Capriccio in concert. Even if, as rumour has it, the decision to perform Strauss’s last opera was made late in the day, as a consequence of Renée Fleming having elected not after all to take on the role of Ariadne, it is difficult to understand why, instead of a desultory couple of concert performances, a production from elsewhere might not have been brought in. The Cologne Opera’s excellent, provocative staging, seen first at the Edinburgh Festival, would have been one candidate; so, by all accounts, would be Robert Carsen’s Paris production. (That is to leave aside the question, worthy of Capriccio itself, of why a singer wields such power at all. Gérard Mortier in Paris had the healthier attitude that if ‘stars’ were willing to perform in and to throw themselves wholeheartedly into interesting repertoire and stagings, all the better; if not, a house could and should manage perfectly well without them.)
Anyway, we had what we had — and I missed a full staging far less than I should ever have expected. Part of that was a matter of a generally strong musical performance, Ton winning out perhaps, but it seemed also to be a credit to the acting skills of the singers, who edged the performance towards, if not the semi-staged, at least the semi-acted. Though most did not follow Fleming’s lead — she has recently sung her role on stage — in dispensing with their scores, there was genuine interaction between them and more than a little moving around the stage in front of the orchestra. Presumably those credited with ‘stage management’ — Sarah Waling and Fran Beaumont — had some part in this far from negligible achievement too. Moreover, Fleming’s Vivienne Westwood gown, granted a lengthy description in the ‘production credits’, might as well have been intended for a staged performance.
Fleming’s performance was more mixed than her fans would doubtless admit, or perhaps even notice. There was a good degree of vocal strain, especially at the top, accompanied at times by a scooping that should have no place in Strauss. It would be vain, moreover to claim that there were not too many times when one could not discern the words. That said, it seemed that there was an attempt to compensate for (relative) vocal deficiencies by paying greater attention to the words than one might have expected; there were indeed occasions when diction was excellent. She clearly felt the agonistic tensions embodied in the role, and expressed them on stage to generally good effect in a convincingly ‘acted’ performance. There were flaws in her final soliloquy, but it moved — just as the Mondscheinmusik did despite an unfortunate slip by the first horn.
It will come as no surprise that Christian Gerhaher excelled as Olivier. Both he and Andrew Staples offered winning, ardent assumptions of their roles as suitors for the affections of the Countess — and of opera itself. Gerhaher’s way with words, and the alchemy he affects in their marriage with music, remains an object lesson . His cleanness of tone was matched — no mean feat — by that of Staples, a more than credible rival. Peter Rose offered a properly larger than life La Roche, though vocally, especially during his paean to the theatre, it could become a little threadbare. Bo Skovhus may no longer lay claim to the vocal refulgence of his youth; he can still hold a stage, though, even in a concert performance, and offered a reading of the Count’s role that was both intelligent and dramatically compelling. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, whom I have had a few occasions to praise in performances outside this country, made a splendid Covent Garden debut as Clairon, rich of tone and both alluring and lively of presence. Graham Clark offered a splendid cameo as Monsieur Taupe, rendering the prompter’s late arrival genuinely touching. There was, moreover, strong singing, both in solo and in ensemble, from the band of servants, many of them Jette Parke Young Artists. John Cunningham’s Major-Domo faltered somewhat, but he had a good line in the brief declamatory. The audience clearly fell for Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian Singers, though I was not entirely convinced that some of those cheering understood that they were acknowledging Strauss in parodic mode.
Sir Andrew Davis led an estimable performance from the orchestra, the occasional fluff notwithstanding. There were moments of stiffness, not least in the Prelude; transitions were not always as fluid as they might have been. Davis, however, marshalled his forces well, and pointed up the myriad of references to other music, whether direct quotation or something more allusive. For all the perfectly poised nature of the ‘discussion’, we always know that Strauss (and thus music) will win out, as he did here. The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast: inevitable cavils notwithstanding, it remains highly recommended.
Cast and production information:
Countess Madeleine : Renée Fleming; Olivier: Christian Gerhaher; Flamand: Andrew Staples; La Roche: Peter Rose; The Count: Bo Skhovus; Clairon: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner; Major-Domo: John Cunningham; Italian Singers: Mary Plazas, Barry Banks; Servants: Pablo Bemsch, Michel de Souza, David Butt Philip, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Riches, Simon Gfeller, Jeremy Budd, Charbel Mattar; Monsieur Taupe: Graham Clark. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Friday 19 July 2013.