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
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
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For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.