18 Sep 2013
Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera House
Although this is their fifth outing, Tanya McCallin’s sets for David McVicar’s Le Nozze di Figaro remain a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
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?
Although this is their fifth outing, Tanya McCallin’s sets for David McVicar’s Le Nozze di Figaro remain a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
The polished floor, scrubbed so assiduously by the long-suffering servant upon whom the curtain rises, gleams and glistens — despite the heavy footfall of domestics bustling about their business under the watchful gaze of an imperious housekeeper. The chandeliers glint and sparkle, under Paule Constable’s beautiful lighting; there are some breath-taking moments such as the twilight transition between the final two Acts, as the interior of the chateau imperceptibly metamorphoses into an enchanted nocturnal garden. Costumes are similarly eye-catching and visually there is scarcely an anachronistic note — indeed, McCallin could probably teach the producers of Downton Abbey a thing or two about period detail.
It’s a shame, then, that the shine seems to have been wiped off the drama itself, for this was a rather lacklustre and untidy performance of an opera which should fizz and glide along effortlessly.
Things got off to a messy start, with both Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Lucy Crowe (Susanna) uncomfortably behind Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s beat in the opening numbers. Also, while both are experienced in their respective roles, there was a lack of frisson between them and they didn’t make for a convincing pair of nearly-weds. One might have put the hitches at the start down to first-night jitters, but matters didn’t really improve and the general ensemble and cohesion between stage and pit were ragged throughout the evening — Eliot Gardiner did not seem inclined to wait for his singers.
The absence of dramatic spark was a pervasive weakness — and a real problem in an opera dominated by action-packed ensembles. Although the servants buzzed about frenetically, the principals often seemed rather listless and lacking in dramatic authority. McCallin’s slickly sliding sets juxtapose the elegant luxury of the aristocrats’ chambers with the threadbare sparseness of the servants’ garrets, and these crossing interfaces reveal the co-dependence of the two worlds, for the opera is all about interaction — between the classes and the genders. Here, however, the intersecting dramatic threads were only loosely woven.
Pisaroni was a tall, handsome Figaro; he has a weighty voice across the range, a glossy tone, a pleasing legato and a relaxed delivery. However, while ‘Se vuol ballare’ was injected with real anger and indignation, in general the sound was rather uniform; more variety would have better conveyed the crafty quick-wittedness of the ever-resourceful valet.
Lucy Crowe matched her fiancé for fury and ferocity in Act 1; not afraid to act with her voice, she was vivacious in the recitatives. Perhaps she sometimes erred too far on the side of feistiness; in later Acts she allowed the fun and ingenuity of the guileful servant to rise to the fore, and as a consequence her voice took on a softer more charming hue. Although Crowe strayed a little sharp in the closing passages of the Act 2 Finale, her last-act serenade was poised and pure.
Christopher Maltman’s Count Almaviva is a thoroughly unpleasant autocrat, conscious of his power and not reticent in using it to intimidate his wife and servants alike. Maltman snarled through some of the Count’s more aggressive moments; his Act 3 vengeance aria was particularly coarse. But, though the Count may be a selfish cad and a bullying egoist, surely he must have some charm too — otherwise, why would the Countess forgive him?
Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson seemed somewhat nervous at the start of ‘Porgi amor’ — the first lines of the aria were noticeably lacking in consonants; perhaps she felt overly exposed by the light, crisp textures conjured by Eliot Gardiner. She did warm up vocally though and by the end of Act 2 found a richer, fuller sound; ‘Dove sono’ was characterised by a joyful glow, especially at the top, and Bengtsson demonstrated a tender, alluring piano. But, dramatically she remained slightly diffident which diminished the impact of the recitatives, most noticeably in the marvellously convoluted Finale to Act 2.
Renata Pokupić was credibly pubescent in mannerism, but her Cherubino coped surprisingly coolly with the trials and tribulations of love — where was the teenage torment, the agony of pubescent passion? Pokupić, too, began a little hesitantly in ‘Non so più’, but she subsequently revealed a well-shaped, sweet-toned mezzo lyricism and ‘Voi che sapete’ deserved its warm applause.
Helene Schneiderman gave a superb performance as Marcellina, striking just the right balance between comedy and caricature, and between malice — spitefully kicking over Susanna’s basket of clean washing —and mischief, playfully cavorting with Bartolo on Figaro’s bed.
Carlos Chausson made heavy work of Bartolo’s ‘La vendetta’, which was somewhat ponderous and humourless — if you can hear the individual words in the patter, it’s too slow. As the oleaginous music-master, Don Basilio, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sang with an apt dash of derision but did not make the most of the opportunities for preening narcissism. Alasdair Elliott and Lynton Black were solid as Don Curzio and Antonio respectively. Mary Bevan, making her Royal Opera House debut, was a fine, technically assured Barbarina.
Things crackled along in the pit, with Eliot Gardiner keeping the tempos brisk and the textures crisp, but even this couldn’t overcome the muting effect of — excepting the aggression of Maltman’s brutal Count — the low-key dramatic interplay on stage. This revival comes just eighteenth months since the last staging in spring 2012; and the production will be seen again in May next year. Given that there were a fair number of empty seats at this opening night, one wonders whether this Figaro needs a bit of a rest, in order to revive its comic energy and effervescence.
Cast and production information:
Figaro, Luca Pisaroni; Susanna, Lucy Crowe; Cherubino, Renata Pokupić; Count Almaviva, Christopher Maltman; Countess Almaviva, Maria Bengtsson; Bartolo, Carlos Chausson; Marcellina, Helene Schneiderman; Don Basilio, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt; Don Curzio, Alasdair Elliott, Antonio; Lynton Black; Barbarina, Mary Bevan; David McVicar, director; Tanya McCallin, designer; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Leah Hausman, movement director; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor; Royal Opera House Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th September 2013.