02 Dec 2013
Weber’s Euryanthe, London
Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.
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.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.
And then, at least in the case of Euryanthe and Oberon, there is the matter of the dreadful libretti he had to set — presumably part of the reason why companies are unwilling to perform them. (Oddly, dreadful music seems to be less of a problem, given the lashings endured of Donizetti, Verdi, et al.) The best one can say for Helmina von Chezy’s efforts in Euryanthe is that they are merely awful, as opposed to the execrable text for Oberon.Lucky Weber, then, to receive such a fine performance as this from the valiant forces of the Chelsea Opera Group.
Conductor Cameron Burns and his excellent cast should receive equal credit for what I have no hesitation in describing as the best COG performance I have heard — by some distance. Burns’s reading ought to have been welcomed with open arms in any opera house; indeed, it would have signalled a marked improvement in most of what we hear. A refreshingly elegant, unexaggerated style — no frenetic waving around of arms to no evident end — did not in any sense preclude engagement with libretto, whatever its shortcomings, and score alike. It was surely testimony to sound training that soloists and chorus not only enunciated clearly, but for the most part seemed really to mean their words — even when the chorus was compelled to comment, without a trace of irony, that Euryanthe’s alleged betrayal of Adolar was the most grievous deed the world had ever witnessed: ‘ O Unthat, grässlichste von allen, Die jemals auf der Welt erhört!’ Burns’s handling of Weber’s score was perhaps all the more revelatory, not least since it is about the music that, perforce, we truly care. Line was maintained throughout. Not a single passage sounded unduly hurried or remotely meandering.
The Overture was an interesting case in point. It offered quite a contrast with, say, Karajan’s account, firmly melded into an almost granitic Wagnerian whole as it is — and mightily, even wondrously, impressive. Here, however, we heard a greater variety of moods, textures, and tempi, arguably more faithful to the movement’s role as apotpourri introduction to Weber’s opera (as opposed to Karajan’s concert overture) and to the composer’s conception, without danger of lapsing into the merely sectional. Presentiments — one has to remind oneself that they are not echoes! — of Mendelssohn characterised the very opening, but a darker form of the supernatural made its voice eerily heard in the ghost music. Weber’s musico-dramatic experiments were communicated with apparent ease, boundaries blurred but not obliterated between more old-fashioned set pieces and the ‘forward-looking’ — at least to any self-respecting Wagnerian — treatment of recitative and arioso. Above all, dramatic tension remained tight and proportions simply sounded ‘right’, a far more difficult task to accomplish than many might appreciate.
The chorus sometimes lacked a little in youthful vitality, especially earlier on, yet became more animated as the opera progressed, later sounding impressive indeed in the great close to the second act. Not unfittingly, it was at that point that the orchestra perhaps gained its greatest dramatic heights too, though throughout there was a great deal of impressive solo playing, especially from the woodwind. If only Weber’s clarinet writing were as meaningful in his concertos as it is here; he clearly needed a dramatic impetus to reach the heights of which he was capable. Moreover, the strings, if at times a little reticent earlier on, subsequently showed themselves adept at providing just the right sort of musical cushion for vocal recitatives. I could not help but wish that we had heard Burns at the helm for the COG Die Feen earlier this year, not least since the amount the two works have in common — not solely influence, though there is a good deal of that — became increasingly clear, as indeed did the influences, perceptible yet again not exaggerated, upon Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. (If only, I thought, Weber had had a dramatist such as Wagner to shape the relationship between Lysiart and Eglantine, we might have had a more telling taste still of Ortrud and Telramund. Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, appallingly misunderstood by many critics at Covent Garden last year, also came to mind more than once.)
Kirstin Sharpin’s star shone brightly in the tight role, words and music honoured to equal extent and indeed in fine alchemy. Hers was a portrayal both impassioned and noble, clearly longing to be properly ‘on stage’, yet offering considerable dramatic compensation even in concert. Sharpin’s cleanness of vocal line and dramatic commitment were shared by Camilla Roberts’s Eglantine. Tricky coloratura apparently evoked no fears; more importantly, such ambiguity as the libretto permitted was exploited to its dramatic fullest. Stephen Gadd likewise offered a finely honed portrayal of her accomplice, Lysiart, malevolent and sophisticated — again, insofar as the libretto permitted, but considerably more so than one would have likely have expected. Jonathan Stoughton revealed an often pleasing tenor as Adolar, drawing upon lyric and heroic reserves as required. This is clearly a voice which, if sensibly marshalled, will be in great demand for heroic roles; however, more careful phrasing was sometimes called for on this occasion. Richard Wiegold projected a benevolent voice of experience as the king, and Melinda Hughes’s brief appearance as the country girl, Bertha proved full of charm. All contributed to a performance that was very much more than the sum of its parts. Now will one of our opera companies — ideally, the Royal Opera — kindly take its cue and do its duty by Weber?
Cast and production information:
King Louis VI: Richard Wiegold; Adolar: Jonathan Stoughton; Euryanthe: Kirstin Sharpin; Lysiart: Stephen Gadd; Eglantine: Camilla Roberts; Bertha: Melinda Hughes; Chorus of the Chelsea Opera Group (chorus master: Deborah Miles-Johnson)/Orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group/Cameron Burns (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, Saturday 23 November 2013.