Recently in Performances
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?
05 May 2014
Thebans: World Premiere at ENO
Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the Coliseum, London, absolutely justifies the ENO's mission: opera, in English, and of national significance. Anderson is one of the most influential figures in modern British music.
He's always written with a distinctively "visual" personality, translating concrete images into abstract music Thebans may be his first official foray into formal opera, but he's been heading towards it for years.
"Is this a contemporary opera?" asked someone in the audience. A good comment, since "isms" are irrelevant to art. Greek tragedy is universal because it deals with concepts that transcend time and place. Its very power comes from abstraction. Frank McGuinness's text distils the essence of the drama in a concise way so Anderson can tell the story through his music. Orchestrally, Thebans is so vivid that I closed my eyes during the First Act to better absorb how the drama was being created by the orchestra, and the interplay between orchestra and voices. Massive towers of sound suggest the relentless Fate that will destroy Oedipus and his issue. Pierre Audi's staging, with Tom Pye's designs, reflects the music extremely well. Strong horizontals against towering verticals giving form to the structure in the score. The choruses are very well blocked, their movements reflecting the movement, and the tension in the music. Towers filled with rock loom over the stage: Antigone, Oedipus's daughter, will be entombed alive in an insane, sterile parody of the womb of the Earth.
Edward Gardner conducts with savage but tightly controlled ferocity. Gardner chose Anderson's Symphony for his high-profile Barbican concert nearly ten years ago, tellingly combined with Walton's Symphony no 1. He understands Anderson, and his place in British music. Gardner shows how Anderson's textures are created. Gardner is wise to expand his portfolio and seek further challenges in orchestral repertoire. He could perhaps be the "British" conductor of choice, with a new, distictive approach.
The powerful blocks of sound that create such impact are not crude monoliths but built up in carefully delineated levels of density. Anderson knew Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. He knows how microtones operate. I also thought of Harrison Birtwistle, specifically Earth Dances, where tectonic planes of sound are shaped by layers of smaller fragments. Birtwistle's syyle is strikingly organic, as if it grows naturally from great depths. Audi's staging again reflects this musical concept. In the Second Act, The Future, lights shine through the towers of rock, highlighting the invisible gaps behind solid objects (probably styrofoam). The lights suggest fire, perhaps volcanic forces rising from the bowels of the planet. Antigone defies oppression. She is the "light" that leads Oedipus who has gouged out his eyes.
The Second Act, which tells her story, is exceptionally well written, worthy of being staged on its own as a stand-alone. A second interval after a 20 minute act would normally kill an opera, but in this case feels necessary: you need to escape the intensity. The writing for the choruses is also very good indeed. Anderson sings in choirs himself. Like Greek choruses, Anderson's chorus pronounce judgement. From way up at the top of the auditorium, the choruses explode, augmented either in numbers or by electronics. : the effect is overwhelming, yet the voice types are not muddled.
In this powerful Second Act, music and visuals glow black, white, indigo, red and gold. This intensifies the desolation at Colonus, the portal of Death. The music becomes sepulchral. At times I caught echoes of plainchant. The devastaion is all the more harrowing because we have just seen how the curse on Oedipus outlasts his death.
Roland Wood sang Oedipus. He has been unwell for some weeks, so we didn't hear him at full capacity, so all the more respect to him. I hope he doesn't harm his voice by pushing it for this premiere, important as it is. Julia Sporsén sang Antigone. Lyrical beauty doesn't necessarily come into this role, so Sporsén created the strength in the part well. Peter Hoare's Creon was superb, helped by the oddly sensual passages Anderson writes for the part. Creon's monolgue in Act Two is disturbingly enticing. Anderson also uses countertenor for good effect, so Christopher Ainslie singing connected to baroque style while also suggesting the surreal intervention of Theseus. The whole Oedipal saga circulates around Jocasta, though she's swiftly despatched fairly early on. Anderson gives Susan Bickley a good aria, and Audi's costume designer Christof Hetzer further illuminates the past by dressing her - alone - in royal blue.