11 Oct 2013
The Coronation of Poppea, ETO
James Conway’s production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea was
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?
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.