02 Mar 2014
LA Opera Presents a Parable of Good and Evil
Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.’
Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
His nemesis, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, played by the equally charismatic Greer Grimsley, hates him because of it. The director could have introduced a homoerotic element of hatred born of rejection, but she chose not to. Instead, the evil Claggart is a first cousin to Verdi and Shakespeare’s Iago.
Herman Melville’s works have become the basis for two modern operas, Benjamin Britten’s 1951 Billy Budd and Jake Heggie’s 2010 Moby Dick. When Melville died in 1891, he left the novella Billy Budd unfinished, so it was not published until 1924. His first biographer, Raymond Weaver, unearthed its manuscript when he read through Melville's papers. In 1951, a play made from the novella by Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman was a major success on Broadway. That same year saw the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera, which has a libretto by English novelist E. M. Forster who worked with frequent Britten collaborator, Eric Crozier.
Richard Croft as Captain Vere
The title role was intended for Geraint Evans, but he found its tessitura too high. At the opera’s monumentally successful premiere at Covent Garden on December 1, 1951, Theodore Uppman sang Budd and Evans sang Mr. Flint. The performance received seventeen curtain calls and rave reviews.
The current Los Angeles Opera production by Francesca Zambello was first seen at London’s Covent Garden on May 30, 1995. Los Angeles Opera originally mounted her austere, relatively traditional production in 2000 and brought it back on February 22, 2014, under the direction of Julia Pevzner. Alison Chitty’s set is a steeply raked, angular deck that can be raised to reveal a crew area below. Above the deck is a slanted mast with an arm that becomes reminiscent of a cross when Billy stretches his arms out on it.
Billy, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence. His nemesis, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, played by the equally charismatic Greer Grimsley, hates him because of it. The director could have introduced a homoerotic element of hatred born of rejection, but she chose not to. Instead, the evil Claggart is a first cousin to Verdi and Shakespeare’s Iago.
Caught in the middle of this drama is the ship’s captain, Vere, beautifully sung and movingly interpreted by Richard Croft. He is seen as an old man in both the prologue and the epilogue. He is still uneasy looking back on his role in Billy’s conviction and execution at sea for assaulting a superior officer. That is Britten’s way of expressing his discontent with the harsh laws of wartime. This production pulled the drama taut and propelled the action forward. Many singers created notable character portrayals in this performance. Greg Fedderly was a raucous Red Whiskers, James Creswell a wise Dansker, and Anthony Michaels-Moore an obsequious Redburn. Members of the Los Angeles Opera chorus sang with precise harmony while making the audience realize how many hundreds of men it took to man sailing ships.
Although the opera does not send the audience out humming its tunes, it is consummate music drama and the orchestra makes the audience feel Billy’s pain when he is betrayed. Britten’s sophisticated musical structure sets the listener up for the coup de grace, Billy’s inability to speak at the crucial moment and his resulting assault on Claggart. The composer has created an evocative phrase for each thing that happens in the opera and conductor James Conlon brought them all out with the brilliant colors and the stark clarity of the score. Conlon was the prime mover for bringing more Britten to Los Angeles and with this performance he demonstrated the powerful emotional appeal of that composer’s work.
Cast and production information:
Billy Budd, Liam Bonner; Captain Edward Vere, Richard Croft; John Claggart, Greer Grimsley; Mr. Redburn, Anthony Michaels-Moore; Mr. Flint, Daniel Sumegi; Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Patrick Blackwell; Red Whiskers, James Creswell; Bosun, Craig Colclough; Novice, Keith Jameson; First Mate, Paul LaRosa; Second Mate, Daniel Armstrong; Novice's Friend, Valentin Anikin; Maintop, Vladimir Dmitruk; Squeak, Matthew O'Neill; Cabin Boy, Rory Hemmings; Conductor, James Conlon; Production, Francesca Zambello; Director, Julia Pevzner; Set and Costume Design, Alison Chitty; Lighting, Alan Burrett; Chorus Master, Grant Gershon; Fight Director, Ed Douglas.