12 Mar 2014
La Fille du regiment, Royal Opera
Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.
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.’
Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.
Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production is now in the hands of revival director Christian Räth, who also directed the 2012 revival. The production was created for Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, but since 2012 the title role has been sung by the Italian lyric soprano Patrizia Ciofi (see Claire Seymour’s review of the 2012 revival). For this revival Ciofi was joined by Florez (with two performances later in the run being sung by Frederic Antoun). Also returning to the role as Hortensius was Donald Maxwell and conductor Yves Abel was also on the podium for the 2012 revival. With so many returning performers, it is inevitable that the newcomers to their roles would be the focus of attention: Pietro Spagnoli sang Sulpice and Ewa Podles was the Marquise de Berkenfeld. But the eyes and ears of many in the audience were on Dame Kiri te Kanawa in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp.
The New Zealand soprano celebrates her 70th birthday during the present run, and her assumption of the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp represents her first appearance at Covent Garden since the 1996/97 season. At Covent Garden the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp has previously been played by Dawn French and by Anne Widdicombe, but when Laurent Pelly’s production has appeared elsewhere then the Duchess has been played by both Kiri te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballe.
Ciofi made a charming Marie, she has the right combination of gamine charm and chutzpah which Pelly’s conception of the role requires. Physically Ciofi’s performance was almost hyper-active, reflecting the current conception of the production, and she is certainly a gifted comic. Natalie Dessay’s physical comedy in the role must have been a difficult act to follow, but Ciofi makes it her own. Vocally Ciofi has quite a soft grained lyric voice, which meant that the more poignant moments (such as her lovely act 2 aria) worked very well. There was plenty of fluent passagework too, and Ciofi has the gift of being able to imbue this with charm as well, she made the vocal fire-works part of the character. Her acuti sometimes seemed a little pressed and with a little too much vibrato for my taste, but she has been ill and missed part of the dress rehearsal, so it is unfair to judge.
Juan Diego Florez remains in fine form, his voice perhaps a little heavier and more solid than when he first sang the role, but he is still technically superb. Despite the lure of the famous act 1 solo with the repeated top C’s, it was his two slower arias which stick in the memory. Here Florez had a knack of slowing time, and causing the busy activity to stop. He can caress and shape a phrase without it being made to feel self-indulgent, and in these solo moments was deservedly the entire focus of attention. The role of Tonio still fits Florez stage persona well, the little-boy lost look still coming over charmingly.
Pietro Spagnoli was a delight as Sulpice with good comic timing combined with a neat way with Donizetti’s vocal line. His act one solo isn’t the best number in the opera, but Spagnoli charmed and made a fine contribution to the act two trio with Ciofi and Florez. More than that, he created a warm and very funny character.
Ewa Podles is clearly a gifted comic actress, as Marquise de Berkenfeld she used her voice to fine comic effect particularly the astounding lower register. Both vocally and in spoken dialogue she made the comedy work and set up a nice double act with Donald Maxwell’s Hortensius. Podles might now have a noticeable break in her voice, but her technique is still in fine form and there was as much to admire vocally as dramatically.
Kiri te Kanawa seemed less at ease with the comic business required, but the role was extended for her and we got to hear her performing an aria from Puccini’s Edgar which was finely done, albeit rather a strange choice in the context. The smaller roles were well taken with Bryan Secombe as the Corporal, Luke Price as a peasant and Jean-Pierre Blanchard as the Notary.
Now directed by Christian Räth , the production seems to have become almost a caricature of itself, all stylised movement, comic business and hardly any naturalism. Was Pelly’s production like this when new? I’d don’t remember it as such, but might be wrong. There is a danger, I think, of this becoming a comic caricature of a production. Most worryingly, the physical comedy seemed to be in danger of being an end in itself, rather than arising out of the music.
The orchestra was in the capable hands of Yves Abel. He and the orchestra provided fine accompaniments to the arias, but the overture did rather take a long time to catch fire.
This is the production’s third revival, that’s a total of four runs since 2007 which is quite a lot of exposure. It would make an interesting re-boot of the piece if, say, it was given in English with Anglophone actors performing the dialogue (at the moment we have a variety of nationalities performing in French), or perhaps investigate the Italian version which Donizetti himself created in 1840 (this lacks the famous top C’s of the tenor Ah mes amies, but the replacement aria is not without difficulty). I am reluctant to suggest that such a popular production be given a rest but perhaps something of a re-think is certainly in order.
Cast and production information:
Marie: Patrizia Ciofi, Tonio: Juan Diego Florez, Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ewa Podles, Sulpice: Pietro Spagnoli, Hortensius: Donald Maxwell, Corporal: Bryan Secombe, Peasant: Luke Price, Notary: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Duchesse de Crackentorp: Kiri te Kanawa. Director: Laurent Pelly, Revival Director: Christian Räth, Dialogue: Agathe Melinand, Set Designs: Chantal Thomas, Lighting Design: Joel Adam, Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Conductor: Yves Abel. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: 3 March 2014.