06 Jun 2014
Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
First, a sigh of relief: in almost every respect, this new ENO staging of Benvenuto Cellini marks a significant improvement
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
First, a sigh of relief: in almost every respect, this new ENO staging of Benvenuto Cellini marks a significant improvement
upon Terry Gilliam’s ‘Springtime for Hitler’ Damnation of Faust. If that sounds like faint praise, for beating a ‘Holocaust as entertainment’ travesty is perhaps setting the bar unreasonably low, then such is not entirely the intention. Gilliam’s Cellini has its virtues, though for me they are considerably fewer than they seemed to be for the audience at large. It is far from unreasonable to depict anarchy and ribaldry in the Carnival, and indeed during the ‘carnival’ overture — though Gilliam’s reported remark that ten minutes of music are ‘too long for the audience to sit through waiting for the show to begin’ are unworthy of anyone working in opera. There is nothing wrong in principle with ‘staging’ an overture, but the reason should be better than that; if the results are a little over the top, they are certainly superior to the justification.
And yet here and in the Carnival itself we also experience the main problem: Gilliam’s seeming inability to trust Berlioz’s opera, an infinitely more successful work than ignorant ‘criticism’ will suggest. Yes, there is excess, even at times an excess of excess, in Berlioz’s work, but what I suspect Gilliam’s fans will applaud as ‘wackiness’, be it the director’s or the composer’s, is far from the only or indeed the most important facet of the opera. Despite the handsome, splendidly adaptable Piranesi-inspired designs, the plentiful coups de théâtre, the impressive collaboration of set design and video for the forging, etc., etc., what matters most of all — Berlioz’s score and, more broadly, his musical drama — often seems forgotten. Perhaps that also explains the unaccountable cuts, which serve to exacerbate alleged ‘weaknesses’ — many of which turn out to be deviations from the operatic norm — instead of mitigating them.
Matters improve considerably after the interval, and there is a genuine sense of dark, nocturnal desperation to the foundry and surroundings at dawn on Ash Wednesday (though there was, admittedly, little sense of the significance or even the coming of that day of mortification). Much of the first act, by contrast, is overbearing and in serious need of clarification. Yes, by all means harness spectacle as a tool of drama, but too often it runs riot in an unhelpful sense; it also encourages a large section of the audience to guffaw, applaud, chatter, make other, apparently unclassifiable, noises, often to the extent that one cannot hear the music. I could not help but think that a smaller budget would have removed a good number of excessive temptations and resulted in something less perilously close to a West End musical. There are the germs, and sometimes rather more than that, of something much better here, but those ‘editing’ Berlioz perhaps themselves stand in need of an editor. The updating to what would appear to be more or less the time of composition, perhaps a little later, does no harm; indeed, it proves generally convincing.
Edward Gardner’s conducting of the first act was disappointing, the Overture, insofar as it could be heard, setting out the conductor’s stall unfortunately: excessive drive followed by excessive relaxation. Wild contrasts are part of what Berlioz’s music demands, of course, but there still needs to be something that connects. Throughout, there were many occasions once again to mourn the loss of Sir Colin Davis, whose 2007 LSO concert performance of this work was simply outstanding. The orchestra proved impressively responsive, though, and, once both Gardner and Gilliam had somewhat calmed down, truly came into its own, sounding as the fine ensemble that it undoubtedly is. Gardner is rarely a conductor to probe beneath the surface, but as musical execution, there was a good deal to savour following the (protracted) interval. Choral singing — and blocking — were more or less beyond reproach, a credit to chorus master Nicholas Jenkins and Gilliam’s team alike, as well of course as to the singers themselves.
Michael Spyres performed impressively in the sadistically difficult title role, there being but a single example, quickly enough corrected, of coming vocally unstuck. His stage swagger seemed true to Gilliam’s conception, and his vocal style — insofar as one can tell, in English translation — was keenly attuned to that of Berlioz. A few ‘veiled’ moments notwithstanding, especially later on in the first act, Corinne Winters impressed equally as Teresa. ‘Entre l’amour et le devoir’ could hardly have been more cleanly sung in the most exacting of aural imaginations. Nicholas Pallesen revealed himself to be a thoughtful and at times impassioned baritone as Fieramosca, though Pavlo Hunka’s Balducci sounded thin and generally out of sorts. Despite Willard White’s undeniable stage presence, his appearance as the Pope did little to dispel suspicions that, sadly, his voice is now increasingly fallible. Paula Murrihy, however, proved an excellent Ascanio: characterful and attractive of tone in equal measure. There were few grounds for complaint from the ‘smaller’ roles either.
ENO’s description of this opéra semi-seria as a ‘romantic comedy’ is puzzling. It is, to be fair fair to Gilliam and all those involved, a description that stands at some distance from their vision too. An opéra comique was originally Berlioz’s conception, but that is a matter of form rather than of sentimentality. We should doubtless be grateful that we were spared a ‘heart-warming’ Richard Curtis version. Nor does it help, of course, that we are subjected to an English translation, which inevitably sounds ‘wrong’ for Berlioz, especially when so apparently deaf to musical line and cadence as this present version. If only ENO would reconsider its stance on a once vexed question, now resolved by the use of surtitles, it could truly transform its fortunes.
Cast and production information:
Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres; Giacomo Balducci: Pavlo Hunka; Teresa: Corinne Winters; Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen; Pope Clement VII: Sir Willard White; Ascanio: Paula Murrihy; Francesco: Nicky Spence; Bernardino: David Soar; Pompeo: Morgan Pearse; Innkeeper: Anton Rich. Director: Terry Gilliam; Co-director, movement: Leah Hausmann ; Set designs: Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden; Costumes: Katrina Lindsay; Video: Finn Ross. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)/Orchestra of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Thursday 5 June 2014.