01 Aug 2013
Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio
The double-bill program of sacred vocal works uses choreography, sets and costumes to heighten the drama within the music
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?
The double-bill program of sacred vocal works uses choreography, sets and costumes to heighten the drama within the music
Passions seem to be running high at Glimmerglass Festival.
The company’s ambitious double-bill program, carrying the title Passions, takes a pair of sacred vocal masterpieces written some 270 years apart and turns up the drama by adding staging and costumes. The finished product produces a handsome visual experience that complements the music.
The title of the program is somewhat misleading, given that neither Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater nor David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion fits the definition of a passion: a story recounting the suffering of Christ at the Cross. Nor do these works fit the definition of an oratorio or cantata, due to the staging. But whatever you prefer to call it, it’s clear that the present reworking of these pieces adds an appealing visual element to an already potent musical experience.
The Stabat Mater in C Minor, which gets my vote for the artistic highlight of the evening, was Pergolesi’s final composition: He succumbed to consumption in 1736, shortly after finishing the work. He was 26 years old. The oratorio for soprano and alto soloists with strings and continuo enjoyed widespread popularity — both within and beyond the Baroque era. (Listeners familiar with the film Amadeus will no doubt recognize the final measures of the concluding Amen, which is quoted in the film.)
The quality of musical performance in this Glimmerglass production, buoyed by a pair of first-rate vocal soloists and the meticulous direction of conductor Speranza Scappucci, was outstanding. So, too, was Jessica Lang’s choreographed body movement — which resonated well with the deep pathos of the music.
The dancers were often synchronized in coordinated motions with the vocal soloists, as if paired in a dramatic pas de deux of pain and anguish. Indeed, the writhing and twisting of bodies, along with contrasts of shadow and light made possible by Mark McCullough’s lighting effects, reminds me of figures in a Caravaggio painting. The minimalist set comprising two giant logs slowly changed position to suggest everything from trees to The Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
The decision to substitute a countertenor for the more customary alto or mezzo-soprano soloist afforded Anthony Roth Costanzo an opportunity to showcase his considerable powers of expression. Costanzo, whom some may remember as Ferdinand in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque fantasy pastiche, The Enchanted Island, simulcast live in HD a year ago January, produced a pure and creamy male alto that blended smoothly with Nadine Sierra’s silky soprano.
The flexibility of Costanzo’s vocal timbre was especially apparent in those numbers involving trills and other ornaments — such as theQuae moerebat et dolebat, which he performed handsomely in-sync with the dancers. His stark dynamic shifts in the Quis non posset contristari at the end of the duet with Sierra were particularly effective. I was especially moved by Costanzo’s deeply expressive vocal delivery, and the smoothly shaped movement of his arms and torso throughout the dramatic and stately Eja mater fons amoris.
Like Costanzo, Sierra’s soprano was full of expression and color, and the movement of her body in tandem with the dancers looked natural and effortless. This combination of sweetness and passion was apparent early on, beginning with the Cujus animam gementem — a lamentful aria that shows off her rich and mellow lower register. Sierra is secure in the higher register as well, as evident in her tender duet O quam tristis, sung in thirds with the second vocal part. Sierra’s dexterous execution of the rapid trills and ornaments in the duet Fac, ut ardeat con meum (one of the rare fast numbers in this oratorio) was particularly impressive.
The most effective use of the set comes at the mournful final number, Quando corpus morietur — the evocative duet that precedes the concluding Amen. For me, this was the most emotionally charged number in the piece. Here, the staging helps capture the mood of resignation as the logs join together to forge a long table that seats the dancers —symbolizing The Last Supper.
Audience reaction to the performance was swift and uniform — an immediate andprolonged standing ovation peppered with voracious shouts of approval for the soloists, conductor, instrumentalists, dancers, choreographer and set director (Marjorie Bradley Kellogg).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, based largely upon a Hans Christian Anderson tale, tells the story of a poor young girl (Victoria Munro) forced by her cruel father to sell matches in the streets on New Year’s Eve. Barefoot, cold and hungry, the little girl strikes match after match trying to keep warm, but — spoiler alert! — she will not live to see the start of the new year.
As was the case with the Stabat Mater, dramatic potency is heightened as a direct result of the staging — which in this case is dominated by the presence of a 24-voice children’s chorus costumed to look like characters in the Broadway musical, Oliver! A steady stream of falling snowflakes (a nice touch by Director Francesca Zambello) evokes the coldness of the streets and reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season is not within reach of all.
In spite of the handsome visuals, however, Lang’s music — which is remarkably effective in the sparsely voiced original with a quartet of singers doubling on percussion instruments — loses much of its intimacy and focus in the larger, staged setting of the work. Indeed, it was the chamber version of The Little Match Girl Passion, and not Lang's subsequent choral arrangement, that earned the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music. (A convincing recording of the original version with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices is available on the Harmonia Mundi label.)
Lang’s writing in this piece may best be described as a synthesis musical styles from both past and present, bonded together with post-minimalist techniques such as unrelenting repetition of melodic patterns, overlapping rhythms and painstakingly slow harmonic motion (speed of the chord changes).
Critics have likened the meditative quality of Lang's music to plainchant, but a more accurate comparison would be the vocal polyphonic styles of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, including 13th century cantus firmus techniques (where the lower part moves much slower than the rest), as well as elements from 15th century motets and 16th century madrigals. But once you abandon the intimacy of a one-on-a-part performance, you forfeit much of its meditative and personal appeal, as well. In the end, the presence of the chorus in Lang's work provided more of a distraction than a musical complement.
Because Lang treats the four voices as quasi-contrapuntal independent melodic lines, it's a constant challenge for the singers to blend sound and match pitches with any degree of consistency. The four Glimmerglass Young Artists program soloists — soprano Lisa Williamson, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor James Michael Porter and bass Christian Zaremba — did justice to this work, and each delivered an impressive individual effort. There were occasional moments where blend of tone sounded choppy and pitch among the four was questionable. Still, the overall effort was impressive. Credit James Michael Porter with navigating the upper tenor register with apparent ease and stability.
The large but well-disciplined children’s chorus moved about the stage gracefully under the preparation and guidance of choreographer Andrea Beasom (another Glimmerglass Young Artist), and the chorus maintained a pleasant and homogenous blend of tone. Many of Lang’s sonorities, however, proved a bit too challenging for the youngsters, who struggled with intonation issues throughout the performance.
I expect many of these performance problems will iron themselves out over the course of the production run. The Little Match Girl Passion is a masterpiece of contemporary dramatic vocal writing, but it takes a first-rate performance to do it justice. It's well worth the effort. And passion.
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.