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
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
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.