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?
06 Jun 2014
Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West
‘I like the atmosphere of the West’, Puccini wrote after seeing three of David Belasco’s plays performed on Broadway in 1907, ‘but in all the “pièces” I have seen, I have found only a few scenes here and there.
a simple thread, all muddle, and, at times, bad taste and old hat.’ It was
nevertheless there and then that the first dramatic seeds were sown for La
fanciulla del West were sown; it would be written to a libretto after
Belasco, dedicated to Queen Alexandra (!), and premiered in New York in 1910.
Even after considerable compression, modification, and so forth, I am not
convinced the work is a resounding triumph, though many Puccini lovers esteem
it highly indeed. It is certainly full of musical interest: the Wagnerisms of
old are perhaps not so prominent, though the love scene in the second act
surely takes partly after Tristan , but the influence of Debussy in
particular is fruitful indeed. Whole tone scales pervade the score, and there
is more than the occasional nod to Pelléas. The story itself, the
characters included, remains more of a problem. They are not the easiest people
to care about, and without that, Puccini’s trademark emotional manipulations
cannot do their work. He may have wished the opera to be a ‘second
Bohème, only stronger, bolder, and more spacious,’ but that
ambition would only fitfully be fulfilled. The sentimentality of the
‘redemptive’ ending is, alas, only too readily resisted.
Or so it seemed here, despite an excellent orchestral performance from the
City of London Sinfonia under Stuart Stratford. The number of occasions when
one really felt the lack of a larger orchestra was surprisingly small, the
strings proving more luscious than one would have had any right to expect, the
woodwind piquant and alluring, and the brass offering dramatical fatalism
aplenty. Stratford’s direction seemed to me splendidly judged, those
Debussyan resonances both readily apparent and seamless incorporated into the
score. There is little that can be done about a rather annoying theme -
friends tell me that it has been ‘borrowed’ by a composer of musical
theatre, though it stands out like a sore thumb even before one is aware of
that - but the score was certainly given its due. Stratford’s - and his
cast’s - crewing up of musical tension during the second-act wager was
Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance
Susannah Glanville shone as Minnie; I had not encountered her before, but
was mightily impressed by her vocal reserves and the dramatic use to which they
were bit. This was a performance that would have graced many a ‘major’
stage, not that the ever-enterprising Opera Holland Park has any reason to fear
such lazy comparisons. Jeff Gwaltney sometimes struggled to make himself heard
- in particular, his words - but offered a sensitive portrayal of Dick
Johnson. Simon Thorpe presented the conflicting emotions of Jack Rance with
considerable skill, permitting one initially to sympathise, then to be
repelled. A strong supporting cast included a highly impressive performance by
Nicholas Garrett as Sonora. Choral singing was likewise greatly to be admired.
The problem, then, lay with Stephen Barlow’s production. This, at least it
seems to me, is a vulnerable work, and the updating to a 1950s Nevada atomic
testing ground makes little sense. A number of those who know the opera far
better than I do say that it is a work that resists relocation in any sense. I
am not so sure; I can imagine, for instance, a metatheatrical treatment in
Hollywood, which played upon musical themes as well as the more obvious
metaphor of gold-digging. The name ‘Camp Desert Rock’ seemed to promise
something that remained un-delivered, but perhaps that should come as a relief.
Barlow’s concept, however ably assisted by Yannis Thavoris’s designs, seems
not to involve any real re-thinking; re-location jars and perplexes, rather
than reinvigorates. Puccini’s ‘never a simple thread, all muddle, and, at
times, bad taste and old hat’? That would be too harsh, but work and musical
performance alike are done no favours by pointless, eye- but hardly
ear-catching interpolations, of Minnie’s final act arrival upon a motorcycle
and the lovers’ subsequent airline departure. It was difficult to resist the
conclusion that the opera would have been better off left in Gold Rush
Cast and production information:
Minnie: Susannah Glanville; Dick Johnson: Jeff Gwaltney; Jack Rance:
Simon Thorpe; Nick: Neal Cooper; Sonora: Nicholas Garrett; Trin: Jung Soo Yun;
Sid: Peter Braithwaite; Bello: James Harrison; Harry: Oliver Brignall; Joe:
Edward Hughes; Happy: John Lofthouse; Jim Larkens: Aidan Smith; Ashby: Graeme
Broadbent; Wowkle: Laura Woods; Billy Jackrabbit: Tom Stoddart; Jake Wallace:
Simon Wilding; Jose Castro: Henry Grant Kerswell; Pony Express Rider: Michael
Bradley. Director: Stephen Barlow; Designs: Yannis Thavoris; Lighting: Richard
Howell. Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Timothy Burke)/ City of
London Sinfonia/Stuart Stratford (conductor). Holland Park. Tuesday 3 June