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.
Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
‘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.