23 Jul 2013
Glimmerglass’s rarely done ‘King for a Day’ a rare treat, well done
This zany production of Verdi’s only comic opera before ‘Falstaff’ keeps the singers in chaos and the audience in stitches
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
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?
This zany production of Verdi’s only comic opera before ‘Falstaff’ keeps the singers in chaos and the audience in stitches
The heroes of the Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s rare — really rare — second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), are director Christian Rath, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, and set and costume designer Court Watson. This trio has taken a work with a threadbare, unfunny plot, and only intermittingly inspired music, and transformed it into an afternoon of zaniness that delighted the audience in the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown.
Verdi wrote this work in 1840 when he was 27. It is his only comic opera until Falstaff, the final masterwork of his old age. Un Giorno was booed by the audience in Milan, in part because of poor singing, and it received but a single performance.
Verdi bounced back from this disappointment with his third opera, Nabucco, which is about as far in spirit from Un Giorno as one could get. He was clearly not looking in the rear-view mirror. Just as he abandoned the comic path, so has the work been abandoned by opera houses in the last 173 years, although Europe has seen a few mountings.
The Rath team put the six principal singers and the chorus through all sorts of physical activity — climbing, jumping, boxing, kissing, dancing, and swinging chairs at each other in a chaotic closing scene to Act 1 that is reminiscent of The Barber of Seville and The Italian Girl in Algiers, both by Rossini, whose presence hovers over Verdi in this creation. The site gags come so thick and fast and are so ingenious that the audience forgets this soufflé could collapse at any minute if the temperature is not kept at a high heat.
Ginger Costa-Jackson as Marchesa
Rath signaled to the audience that a circus was about to start by projecting clown-costume circles of color on a white curtain during the toe-tapping overture. Then, in the English titling (for a production sung in English), the audience was invited to attend a double wedding and to allow four hours “to clear security.” Similar 21st century touches were interpolated in the text by Kelley Rourke, who did all she could to make this creaky story of young love thwarted (and then triumphant) relevant.
The stage business was so intricate, and non-stop, it was a wonder that the first performance went so smoothly. I expected the cast to fall off the steeply raked set at any moment and tumble into the orchestra pit, but no one did. Indeed, if anyone was ever out of place it wasn’t evident to the audience. The physical comedy delivered by the young cast assured a success.
Had Verdi not been the one to write this, however, no one would stage it today. So, is the great master present at all in the music? Here and there, yes. A few phrases from mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (as the Marchesa) find their way into Gilda’s music in Act 1 of Rigoletto. Some of the choral work prefigures Ernani.
What is more instructive, however, is how Verdi assimilated Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini in this work, which is only to be expected given how wet behind the ears he was. The basso buffo singing of Doctor Dulcamara (The Elixir of Love) and Don Pasqualeare not far from the surface in the music for bass Jason Hardy as the Baron Kelbar, and baritones Andrew Wilkowske (as La Rocca) and Young Artist Alex Lawrence as the King of the title. One extended passage for the King and chorus in Act 1 is a close parallel to music from Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims. A promising duet for tenor and baritone in Act 1 could be plopped into Bellini’s I Puritani without much alteration.
And so it goes for about two hours of music — little Verdi, but lots of early 19th century Italian opera by other masters. What he did demonstrate at 27 was his ability to write for the voice. The tenor part (the love-sick Edoardo, sung by Young Artist Patrick O’Halloran) is particularly fine.
As the Marchesa, Costa-Jackson was the only “name” singer in the cast. Dolled up in a red sheath and a blond beehive wig, she vamped around the stage, often holding a twinkly gray toy poodle that adamantly refused to move at one point in the first act. Her part lies high for a mezzo, and Costa-Jackson had some problems at the top of the range. But given she was in a track meet of a production that must have sorely taxed her lung power, it’s surprising she sang as well as she did.
Clockwise from top: Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar, Patrick O'Halloran as Edoardo, Jacqueline Echols as Giulietta and Andrew Wilkowske as La Rocca
None of the three low-lying males — Hardy, Lawrence, and Wilkowske — has the cavernous bass or baritone voice, or the agility in articulation, to do justice to the patter. Nor do they have the blustering style of a Doctor Bartolo. All were too light for their roles, but they threw themselves into the proceedings with gusto, particularly Hardy. His impersonation of a boxer alone is worth the price of admission.
The best singing came from the young couple (who would become Nannetta and Fenton in Falstaff in another 53 years). Young Artist Jacqueline Echols was a prim Giuletta in her modest patterned dress. She has a melting soprano voice and terrific stage presence, even when singing from under the raked stage. As her true love Edoardo, O’Halloran looked like Clark Kent in an argyle sweater, matching socks, shorts and black-frame glasses. He doesn’t yet sing like Superman, but he has much potential. His voice seems agile enough for Rossini, but also with sufficient heft for Donizetti and Bellini. For me he was the most rewarding singer on stage.
The two smaller parts of Delmonte and Count Ivrea (who totters around on a walker) were assumed by two more Young Artists, Andrew Penning and Joe Shadday.
The performance was conducted by Joseph Colaneri, the new music director of the Festival. He miraculously led a crisp, tidy performance in which everyone stayed together even as they were rocketing around the stage. I don’t know how this was achieved, but it was. The orchestra played very well for its new boss.
Un Giorno can be heard on CD in a luxury cast that includes José Carreras, Jessye Norman, Fiorenza Cossotto and Ingvar Wixell on Decca, under conductor Lamberto Gardelli. The score holds up in repeated listening, particularly with the manic images from Glimmerglass in one’s head. Even though Rath’s production book must be 5,000 pages long, other companies might want to take a look at this rarity — if the cast is young and fit.
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.