07 Oct 2013
Maria Stuarda, WNO
The second installment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda saw
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
The second installment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda saw
Rudolf Frey at the helm, directing within designer Madeleine Boyd’s overall concept, with conductor Graeme Jenkins and a strong cast including Adina Nitescu as Elisabetta, Alastair Miles as Talbot, Gary Griffiths as Cecil, Bruce Sledge as Leicester, Judith Howarth as Maria Stuarda and Quite d Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Anna. We saw the performance on 5 October 2013 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Whilst all concerned clearly worked hard, the performance failed to achieve the level of dramatic intensity and focus that I had been hoping for.
Donizetti’s opera failed during his lifetime, but it’s performance history has been transformed in the 20th century with striking interpretations by singers as diverse as Janet Baker, Joan Sutherland, Ann Murray and Sarah Connolly. The role of Maria Stuarda was sung, in the first Milan performances in 1835, by Maria Maliban which has led people to cast the role as mezzo-soprano though Donizetti probably intended both Maria and Elisabetta to be sung by sopranos. WNO followed this with their casting of both roles as sopranos, with Howarth and Nitescu.
Frey is a young Austrian director who has recently staged Verdi’s Nabucco in Salzburg. It was never going to be easy for him to produce Maria Stuarda within a concept conceived to fit Alessandro Talevi’s Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux. Boyd’s black set and stylish black costumes were continued over from Anna Bolena and Boyd had created some extremely striking and stylish outfits for Nitescu as Elisabetta. New to Maria Stuarda were two huge boxes, two halves of a giant cube sitting on the revolve. One was white, with glass walls, Maria Stuarda’s prison and the other was a dark wood closet used by Elisabetta.
Quite firmly we were presented with a dichotomy, the dark Elisabetta paralleled with the light Maria. This found its way into many aspects of the staging, in act one scene two, when Maria was reveling in her freedom, not only did we hear the horns but was saw them and saw Elisabetta being dressed for the hunt as the two boxes had a transparent membrane between them. Later Frey used this to striking effect when Elisabetta was trying to decide whether to sign Maria’s death warrant, we saw Maria behind her mirroring her actions. And when the warrant was signed, Elisabetta drew a line in red across the membrane which effectively cut of Maria’s head. But too frequently, I felt that rather concentrating on dramatic atmosphere, Frey was signalling to us exactly what to think.
During the prelude we saw the courtiers pressing against Maria’s box, watching her as she gestured defiance. But the use of these boxes severely restricted the playing area, so that the court scene at the opening of act one was played on the narrow stage in front of the boxes with the courtiers arrayed in serried ranks on benches. Frey didn’t seem interested in striking effective stage pictures, but seemed content to assemble people in ranks. Ensembles saw the singers lined up at the front of the stage. And rather too often he used the device of having a single singer move whilst the rest of the stage froze. I’m afraid that by the end of act one, I was beginning to wonder whether Rudolf Frey actually liked bel canto opera, as too often his production worked against the grain of Donizetti’s drama, rather than with it. All this would not have mattered, if he had generated performances of focussed intensity from his principals, but unfortunately despite some extremely fine singing and a great deal of energy, the production did not coalesce into an effective whole.
The role of Elisabetta is firmly the seconda donna, she doesn’t really get much stage time but what she does get is terrific and the part is something of a gift for a singing actress. Nitolescu looked and acted the part, in dramatic terms she made a strong Elisabetta. But she had a tendency to swallow her words so that it was not clear what she was singing, and her tone was frankly rather squally. When singing quietly, she was capable of some fine grade singing, but when she pushed the voice the tone rather curdled. Unfortunately this crept into her whole performance, so that her Elisabettta did rather have an element of caricature about her.
Judith Howarth is a singer who has not received the attention which she deserves in the UK and I was pleased to hear her in the title role. She was dressed by Boyd in a similar style to all the other women, full skirts, leather bodice but in Howarth’s case the fabric was red tartan and the bodice brown leather, with a white blouse. The result rather gave her the look of a comedy bar-maid. And throughout the opera, it was a little unclear quite who this person was, I am not sure that Frey had a strong idea here. Instead of a noble queen suffering unjustly we got a character who seemed to be channelling Lucy Ewing (aka the poison dwarf) from Dallas. During her lovely entrance aria, which Howarth sang very finely, she and her lady in waiting lit up cigarettes and lounged against the walls of the box. Then in the next scene with Sledge’s Leicester, Howarth cavorted about like a comedy vamp.
This was frustrating because, apart from a couple of slightly unfocused top notes and an unfortunate E in alt, Howarth’s performance was highly musical and very stylish. All my doubts coalesced in the staging of the confrontation between the two queens at the end of act one. All concerned were encouraged to over act, with Nitescu spitting venom from the start, Howarth encouraged to be more virago than noble victim, and Gary Griffiths’ Cecil mincing about like poison-incarnate. The result looked over done and frankly, verged into comedy, as if Frey did not quite trust his material. But then Howarth sang the infamous Vile bastard phrase with such concentrated intensity and venom that made you realise there was the making of a strong performance underneath.
In act two, Nitescu’s opening scene with Griffiths and Sledge, did generate quite a frisson of drama and Frey’s coup of having Nitescu cut off Howarth’s head with the red line was certainly very striking. But from the second scene, the action concentrated on Howarth and we were able to appreciate the beautiful way with Donizetti’s music and the nice feeling for structure she showed as the performance built through Maria’s sequence of arias. The prayer at the opening of the final scene was profoundly lovely, but the aria in which Maria forgives Elisabetta was nearly torpedoed by having Howarth strip off her dark coat to reveal a brown leather jerkin, closely moulded to her body with a pair of hugely realistic breasts. I am still unclear of the iconography here, but Howarth performed with devastating aplomb and if you had listened with your eyes closed you would never have heard any disturbance in the vocal line.
Bruce Sledge gave ardent support as Leicester, revealing a robust tenor voice which was fully adept at Donizetti’s vocal lines. We heard Sledge in Santa Fe (in Rossini’s Maometto secondo) and he impressed then and impressed again. He sang with generous tone and a robust style, bringing great energy to the vocal line. Dramatically he was perhaps a little understated, but in the concept of the rather over-done moments in the production this was very welcome.
Gary Griffiths sang Cecil very well, but his performance seemed to be marooned in a bizarre concept of the character which involved much pouting and over-acting from Griffiths. I am not quite sure what Frey’s intentions were, be as realised here they rather disturbed the drama and distracted from what was a very fine musical performance.
Alastair Miles, having contributed an evil Enrico in Anna Bolena, was a noble and notable Talbot, even managing to get out a priest’s stole with aplomb. His big scene with Howarth in act two had its over-done moments, but over all the two artists generated a fine sense of the release which brought Maria to a new plane.
Graeme Jenkins conducted confidently and there were some nice moments. He had a tendency sometimes to let the music plod a bit, so that we had the odd rum-ti-tum moment which is always a danger in Donizetti. The orchestra did not seem to generate the same consistent intensity that we had heard the previous night.
This was a rather frustrating performance, in which the director’s konzept did not seem to quite match Donizetti’s music and which led to some rather unfocused performances. Whilst there were some fine moments, overall the performance lacked dramatic intensity. Thanks to Howarth’s extremely moving account of the title role, the final scenes had a nobility to them for which I was thankful.
Cast and production information:
Elisabetta: Adina Nitescu, Talbot: Alastair Miles, Cecil: Gary Griffiths, Leicester: Bruce Sledge, Anna: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Maria Stuarda: Judith Howarth. Director: Rudolf Frey, Designer: Madelein Boyd, Lighting: Matthew Haskins. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 5 October 2013.