Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
30 Sep 2013
Peter Grimes, Vladimir Jurowski
Vladimir Jurowski conducted a fascinating Peter Grimes with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Fascinating, because Jurowski finds things in Britten other conductors don't get in the first place. Jurowski approaches Britten as a composer, without the usual baggage of Britishness and Brittenish.
Jurowski makes us hear Britten as a composer who knew the music of his era and had much to say about the times he lived in. Britten was not provincial though he chose to live in Aldeburgh. Peter Grimes is by no means a "heritage museum" in music even if its inspiration was an 18th century text.
Jurowski's Passacaglia and Sea Interludes reveal Britten as a composer in the wider European context: grand, majestic gestures, as Romantic in the best sense of the word, but emotionally intense with a very modern edge. Peter Grimes was Britten's first mature opera and arguably the first real British opera, so it's important to hear it in this context. Britten knew the music of his time. The orchestration is huge in comparison to Britten's later works. There are even references to American popular music, such as in the Act Three scene in the pub. Britten, who knew more about America than most Suffolk fisherfolk, was obliquely commenting on social change. For change is at the heart of Peter Grimes.
Grimes is persecuted by pious hypocrites, determined to condemn him on principle. All around Aldeburgh, there are ruined churches, destroyed by fanatics in the Reformation. Witch hunts weren't so far in the past. Whatever Grimes may or may not have done, there are those in the Borough who need an outlet for the poison in their own souls. Perhaps there are subtexts in this opera linked to Britten's sexuality, or to his relationship with the conservative music establishment (qv Gloriana) but Peter Grimes is an opera which protests blind obedience to conformity. Anniversary years like this smother genuine knowledge under a fire blanket of banal cliché. All the more reason to respect Jurowski, even though the concert was part of the South Bank's anodyne The Rest Is Noise marketing.
Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes is a breath of fresh air. Because Grimes is inarticulate, it doesn't mean that the role should be sung with neutral colour. The clarity of Skelton's timbre suggests Grimes's intelligence. Like his apprentices, he might have been forced into his line of work without choice. Skelton sang "Now the Great Bear and Pleaides" with such elegant purity that I thought of Captain Vere, the real hero of Billy Budd. Strength, for Britten, isn't physical prowess so much as emotional integrity. Audiences might like their Britten characters safer and more comfortable, but Skelton shows where the real potential in the role might lie.
Some excellent support from Brindley Sherratt (Swallow), whose shimmy with the Nieces ((Malin Christensson and Elizabeth Cragg) was low down and dirty yet hilarious at the same time. Nice to hear levity in a bass. Alan Opie was a good Balstrode and Mark Stone a very convincing Ned Keene. If that leather jacket cost thousands, it gave him an authentic swagger. The main female roles, Ellen Orford (Pamela Armstong), Auntie (Pamela Helen Stephen), and Mrs Sedley (Jean Rigby) could have been done with more bite, but to some extent, Britten wasn't at his best creating women. Mrs Sedley, though, can benefit from being done malevolently. There's vicious camp humour in "Murder most horrid", where trombones slither like snakes. If nothing else in this anniversary year, we should learn to recognize Britten's incisive sense of humour.
Singers have to show character and interact even in semi-stagings and concert performances. If anything, good Personenregie is even more important in semi-stagings and concert performances. One of the reasons I like minimal productions is that they focus attention on the performers themselves, not on the decor. The director was Daniel Salter who directed an excellent Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley..Alex Doidge-Green's designs were excellent. The LPO were roped in, partly to shield them from the movement of the singers on a cramped stage, but also symbolically. When Skelton rolled up the rope, he released the Peter Grimes, heading towards fate.
Cast and production information:
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton, Ellen Orford: Pamela Armstrong, Captain Balstrode: Alan Opie, Auntie: Pamela Helen Stephen, Nieces: Malin Christensson, Elizabeth Cragg, Bob Boles: Michael Colvin, Swallow: Brindley Sherratt, Mrs Sedley: Jean Rigby,Ned Ke3ene: Mark Stone, Rev. Adams: Brian Galliford, Hobson: Joanathan Veira, London Voiuces, London Philharmomnic Orchestra, Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski, Director: Daniel Slater, Designer: Alex Doidge-Green, Lighting: Tim Mascall. Royal Festival Hall, London 28th September 2013.