Recently in Performances
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?
22 Sep 2013
Mefistofele in San Francisco
Here is the exception. The revival of an old opera production need not always be perceived as an expedient (read cheap) solution to getting a season of opera put together, but may pass instead as an artistically thoughtful choice.
Just now San Francisco Opera has presented Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, in a 25 year old production by Canadian stage director Robert Carsen who was 34 years old at its premiere in Geneva in 1988. Carsen’s production, designed by Michael Levine (who was 27 years old back in 1988), is brilliantly witty. Maybe its racy titillations (bared female breasts and exposed male genitalia) were racier back in the ’80’s than they are now but they still brightly illuminate Mefistofele as one of opera’s more bizarre artifacts.
What the Carsen production did not have at its 1989 premiere in San Francisco was conductor Nicola Luisotti whose exuberant showmanship and spectacular musical making have found, finally, an opera production that is their match. It is no secret that the glories of the Luisotti pit frequently dwarf what is on the stage in San Francisco, or more often ignore the intentions of the stage, meager may they be these days. Here however the Boito, Carsen and Luisotti collaboration was one clearly envisioned in heaven.
The 1860’s were heady times in Paris and Milan, Offenbach was at the peak of his fame making fun of both love and antiquity sparing, strangely, religion. In Milan however there were a few outrageous poets (messy haired ones) who took on anything sacred to the Italians, be it personal appearance, God or Goethe. One of them (these scapigliature) was Arrigo Boito, 26 years old in 1868, who deftly extracted a few passages from the bible of bourgeois Romanticism, i.e. Goethe’s Faust and construed them to cruelly satirize nineteenth century self-fulfillment aspirations.
Patricia Racette as Margherita and Ramón Vargas as Faust
These were not modest times operatically — Verdi’s Don Carlo comes in 1867. The fully developed 19th century Italian sound was widespread as evidenced by the many composers who contributed to the Messa per Rossini (1869). A man of letters and a man of his times Boito could write music as well as librettos. The operas Mefistofele and Nerone are his musical legacy. Their style is typically Italian of the period, warmed somewhat with oltralpe sonorities (beyond the Alps means Wagnerian, a dirty word in Italy just then). It is good music.
Obviously Boito’s Mefistofele is massive, given it addresses the always important struggles of good and evil. God and the Devil confront one another, Faust is in between, Marguerite is pathetic and Helen of Troy is untouchable. Robert Carsen manages all this with enough supernumeraries to turn a village fair into a Chinese New Year of the Snake running amok in the Garden of Eden, a huge chorus of nymphs and satyrs is unleashed into an out-of-control bacchanal, and a pristine ballet revels to the beauty of classical architecture shining in an hyper elaborated harp solo. All of this overseen by a massive chorus of heavenly angels who are joined by legions of cherubim at the moments when the glory of God rises to its utmost clamor.
Needless to say everyone has a very good time, most of all maestro Luisotti who can unleash the forces of heaven themselves in massive choirs of praise as well as confront God with outright derision — those two piccolos screaming over the orchestra were only some of the whistles you heard (the fischio [whistle] is obvious derision in Italy), the rest were real. In spite of being condemned to death even poor Marguerite has a good time — her aria is one of the splendors of the soprano repertory. It was in fact an exquisite duet with the maestro, the diva in quite fine voice at the third performance.
Carsen’s indulgence of affection for Boito’s youthful escapade was sweetened by the casting of Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Faust. His is a voice of great beauty still most at home in the light lyric repertory (he was San Francisco’s Nemorino). At 53 years of age Vargas now takes on heavier roles, like Boito’s Faust as well as Gustavo III in Un ballo in maschera last summer at Orange. Here he sang with consummate style and musicianship, and with the maestro made a quite moving declaration of love to Helen. Nonetheless he remains a miniature tenor for the big repertory and therefore could perfectly embody a pretend Romantic hero caught up in all this fun.
Much the same can be said for the Mefistofele of Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. He gave a maximally effective performance, vocally and histrionically. In fact Mr. Abdrazakov was absolutely adorable as a pretend villain whose sole purpose is to give rise to lots of fortissimo music. While it surely was expedient to cast Adler Fellow Marina Harris as Helen of Troy it was not appropriate. However fine a young singer may be it is rare that an Adler Fellow may have the presence, personality and experience to hold the stage in a major role. After all, San Francisco Opera boasts that it performs on the international level. Or does it?
The Robert Carsen/Michael Levine production is huge, and hugely fun. It is a masterpiece that was well worth reviving. If you miss it just now in San Francisco you can catch it at the Met in 2015 (conductor and cast not yet announced). And, uhm, it was anything but cheap to get this production back on the stage after twenty five years of travel.
Cast and production information:
Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov; Margherita: Patricia Racette; Faust: Ramón Vargas; Elena: Marina Harris; Marta: Erin Johnson; Pantalis: Renée Rapier; Wagner/Nereo: Chuanyue Wang. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production: Robert Carsen; Stage Director: Laurie Feldman; Choreographer: Alphonse Poulin; Set and Costume Design: Michael Levine; Lighting Design: Gary Marder. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. September 14, 2013.