11 Oct 2013
The Coronation of Poppea, ETO
James Conway’s production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea was
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
James Conway’s production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea was
first performed last November by students from the Royal College of Music. Now it is revived, at the same Britten Theatre, but by English Touring Opera, as part of its Venetian season. It made a still greater impression upon me than last year; whilst the earlier cast had sung well and deserved great credit, the professional singers of ETO seemed more inside their roles, as much in stage as purely musical terms.
Conway’s production holds up very well. Its perhaps surprising relocation of the action to a parallel universe in which a Stalinist Russia existed without the prude Stalin — ‘just the breath of his world,’ as Conway’s programme note puts it — provides a highly convincing reimagination of the already reimagined world of Nero. ‘Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me,’ Conway writes, ‘that this was a place in which Nerone might flourish, from which Ottone, Drusilla, Ottavia, and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it comes to pass, from the Prologue in which La Fortuna, La Virtù, and Amore unfurl their respective red banners, setting out their respective stalls, until Poppea’s (and Amore’s) final triumph. Claustrophobia reigns supreme, save for the caprice of Amore himself, here dressed as a young pioneer, ready to knock upon the window at the crucial moment, so as to prevent Ottone from the murder that would have changed everything. Samal Black’s set design is both handsome and versatile, permitting readily of rearrangement, and also providing for two levels of action: Ottavia can plot, or lament, whilst Poppea sleeps. Conway’s idea of Poppea as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies in an opera whose game is power continues to exert fascination, and in a strongly acted performance, proves perhaps more convincing still than last time. Where then, the blonde wig had seemed more odd than anything else, here the idea of a constructed identity, designed to please and to further all manner of other interests, registers with considerable dramatic power. The seeping of blood as the tragedy — but is it that? — ensues makes an equally powerful point, albeit with relative restraint; this is not, we should be thankful, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or some other instance of Grand Guignol. Above all, the Shakespearean quality of Monteverdi’s imagination, unparalleled in opera before Mozart, registers as it must. One regretted the cuts, but one could live with them in as taut a rendition as this.
Michael Rosewell’s conducting had gained considerably in fluency from last time. I feared the worst from the opening sinfonia, in which ornamentation became unduly exhibitionistic — I could have sworn that I heard an interpolated phrase from the 1610 Vespers at one point — and the violins were somewhat painfully out of tune, my fears were largely confounded. It is a great pity that we still live in a climate of musical Stalinism, in which modern instruments are considered enemies of the people than the kulaks were, but continuo playing largely convinced and string tone, even if emaciated, at least improved in terms of intonation. For something more, we must return, alas, to Leppard or to Karajan.
Moreover, it was possible — indeed, almost impossible not — to concentrate upon the musico-dramatic performances on stage. Helen Sherman’s Nerone displayed laudable ability to act ‘masculine’, at least to the dubious extent that the character deserves it, and great facility with Monteverdi’s lines, even when sung in English. Paula Sides proved fully the equal both of Monteverdi’s role and Conway’s conception. Hers was a performance compelling in beauty and eroticism; indeed, the entwining of the two was impressive indeed. The nobility but also the vengefulness of Ottavia came through powerfully in Hannah Pedley’s assumption, her claret-like tintà a rare pleasure. Michal Czerniawski again displayed a fine countertenor voice as Ottone, engaging the audience’s sympathy but also its interest; this was no mere cipher, but a real human being. Much the same could be said of Hannah Sandison’s Drusilla, save of course for the countertenor part. Piotr Lempa has the low notes for Seneca, though production can be somewhat uneven, perhaps simply a reflection of a voice that is still changing. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Arnalta was more ‘characterful’ than beautifully sung, but perhaps that was the point. Pick of the rest was undeniably Jake Arditti’s protean Amor, as stylishly sung as it was wickedly acted. The cast, though, is more than the sum of its parts, testament to a well-rehearsed, well-c0nceived, well-sung production of a truly towering masterpiece.
Cast and production information:
Nerone: Helen Sherman; Seneca: Piotr Lempa; Ottavia: Hannah Pedley; Nutrice: Russell Harcourt; Lucano: Stuart Haycock; Liberto: Nicholas Merryweather; Poppea: Paula Sides; Arnalta: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Ottone: Michal Czerniawski; Drusilla: Hannah Sandison; Amor: Jake Arditti. Director: James Conway; Revival director: Oliver Platt; Designs: Samal Blak; Lighting: Ace McCarron. Old Street Band/Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, Wednesday 9 October 2013.