10 Jun 2014
Offenbach’s Vert-Vert at Garsington Opera
Is Garsington the new Glyndebourne, a Glyndebourne for the 21st Century?
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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
Is Garsington the new Glyndebourne, a Glyndebourne for the 21st Century?
Invidious perhaps to make the suggestion that Glyndebourne might be about to be knocked of its perch, especially when the opera in question — Vert-Vert — features a girl’s school in collective mourning for a dead parrot, Monty Python meets the Belles of St Trinians? Sacré bleu!
Certainly Garsington’s musical standards are not far short of Glyndebourne’s and the place itself, the London side of Oxford but far easier to reach for people in London, the Midlands or the West Country, has an intimacy which recalls Glyndebourne’s ‘old house’ in its heyday. Garsington also has a canny management in that the three operas featured this year — Fidelio, Vert-Vert and Cunning Little Vixen — appeal to three potentially different audiences, Fidelio to the audience for grand opera but one ideally suited to a smallish house, Vert-Vert to an audience unashamedly in search of entertainment and a good evening out — it is a hoot — in an English country house setting, and Cunning Little Vixen to an audience prepared to try something quite different yet appealing to children. Astute.
Under Douglas Boyd’s leadership Garsington also seems to have grasped two other important factors. Firstly, that if we are going to pay top dollar we do not want to be treated to the absurdities — designer opera may all be very well in European cities where going to the opera is no big deal and you can walk home afterwards but not here, thank you — and secondly the need for proper conductors (who wants to go to, say, Le Nozze di Figaro conducted by a repetiteur when one has heard it conducted by the likes of Sir Colin Davis or Otto Klemperer). In this respect next year’s Garsington points the way with three productions led by three conductors any of whom one would happily see in a major opera house.
Once popular, Offenbach’s operettas — there are some 90 of them — might almost qualify, at least in England, as a lost genre. They call not merely for excellent singers but also the lightest hand on the orchestral tiller. The conductor David Parry’s passion for them and his certainty of touch is manifest at every turn. Their plots are convoluted to say the least but so was Offenbach’s own life. Born in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor, Isaac Eberst who in his travels as an itinerant violinist also became known as “der Offenbacher” (the name of his home town), he decided to use this name for his children. He took his two sons to Paris where young Jakob became Jacques and his cello playing was sufficiently impressive to impress Cherubini. Despite a ban on foreign students, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, leaving after a year and becoming a cello sensation (he was dubbed “le Liszt du violoncelle”).
Naomi O’Connell as La Corilla with Quirijn de Lang as D’Arlange, Andrew Glover as Bergerac and Dragoons
In 1844 Jakob/Jacques married Herminie d’Alcain who was the step-daughter of an English impresario, John Mitchell. After a brief period back in Cologne following the 1848 revolution he was back in Paris, by now composing, but the doors of the Opéra-Comique were firmly closed to him (he had made the mistake of making fun of the great Meyerbeer) and he had the unusual but rather modern idea of starting a musical theatre himself. His opportunity came in the wake of the Great Exhibition when he acquired a tiny wooden built theatre in the grounds of the Exhibition called the Salle Lacaze and a licence to mount small-scale productions. “Ce petit spectacle d’été aurait pour titre les Bouffes-Parisiens” (ie. according to its licence the Bouffes-Parisiens was only intended as a temporary summer affair). Like Garsington, Offenbach had spotted a gap in the market since the Opéra-Comique had strayed from its original light opera purpose, putting on instead miniature grand operas. The rest, as they say, is history and Offenbach never looked back. Over the next 30 years he turned out some 90 operettas of which Orphée aux Enfers, La Vie Parisienne, La Belle Hélène and La Périchole (performed at Garsington 2 years ago) have endured. By a final delicious twist it was the much grander Les Contes d’Hoffmann — grand opera at its grandest — which he was working on at the time of his death by which he now best remembered.
Vert-Vert was first performed — ironically given its initial rejection of the composer — at the Opéra-Comique in 1869, the year before the Franco-Prussian war and, although it was performed in London in a much-reduced version at St. James’s Theatre in 1874, the current run of performances at Garsington is its first complete staging in England. Catch it if you can. It is a riot and deserves to transfer to the West End.
The plot, suitably Pythonesque given the dead parrot, is more or less impossible to précis. Suffice it to say we are in a girls convent school in mourning for its dead parrot, Vert-Vert. Cue general lamentations. The girls choose an innocent young man, Valentin, as a substitute parrot. Two of them, Bathilde and Emma, are secretly married to dashing young aristocratic dragoons, the Comte d’Arlange and the Chevalier de Bergerac. Mimi, another girl, is secretly in love with Valentin. There is a stern deputy headmistress who is also secretly married to the dancing master Baladon. Other characters include Binet, a gardener (here played with a broad Scots accent), La Corilla, a famous singer to whom to whom the originally goody two shoes Valentin clearly loses his innocence (in Manon Lescaut the Abbé Prévost describes it as “cheating the church of its dues”) and an assorted cast of dragoons and theatricals. Rather like a demented Brian Rix farce, mayhem ensues. All is happily resolved in the rousing final chorus (“A slurp of wine”) but in between there are some notably tender and affecting moments. This may be comic but it is comedy with a heart.
The production — a fine demonstration of ‘more is less’ but nonetheless with several coups de théâtre as when the back of the stage opens wide and the school/chateau is wheeled to the open space beyond with Garsington’s woods as a backdrop or another occasion when the rear of the stage opens to admit the barge named Hortense which bears Valentin away — was an object lesson in pointful economy. The costumes were gorgeous, colourful dragoons and an impromptu party of ‘theatricals’ in the second act, but above all as well as colourful they were entirely period appropriate.
Most importantly — and this is probably why the genre has never really caught on in Britain — in David Parry we had a conductor who, like Beecham, has the idiom at his fingertips, exuding panache, élan and élegance in equal measure (only French words will do). Beecham once talked of combining the maximum delicacy with the maximum virility, a comment which might well have applied to the Garsington orchestra on this occasion with its polished strings, an excellent first clarinet (Peter Sparks) in his several solos and a notably secure horn section. The score absolutely fizzed along.
As far as the singers are concerned a large cast with no obvious weak links was headed by the tenor Robert Murray as Valentin/Vert-Vert. a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera with a superb voice (he has sung Tamino in Magic Flute and one can imagine him as excellent in the role), and by a diminutive but wonderfully feisty (shades of Ethel Merman) Welsh soprano, Fflur Wyn, in the role of Mimi. Other notable successes were the Dutch Quirijn de Lang and Andrew Glover as the two dragoon officers and Geoffrey Dolton as the Dancing Master giving a gloriously OTT display of the Pavane, the Gavotte and the Minuet (Yes, he can dance too).
One small quibble. David Parry’s translation into English is of course essential if a non French audience is to capture the piece’s absurdist, madcap quality and its various nuances. The translation’s rhyming couplets do sometimes sit inelegantly though with the actual musical line, occasionally giving it a MacGonegal-esque quality. However, I for one am more than happy to put up with the occasional infelicity in the interests of the many LOL moments. In short, a bonne bouche — even a canapé — and an undiluted triomphe from first note to last.
Cast and production information:
Valentin later called Vert-Vert: Robert Murray; Baladon dancing master: Geoffrey Dolton; Binet gardener: Mark Wilde; Bellecour singer: Alessandro Fisher; Le Comte d’Arlange officer of dragoons: Quirijn de Lang; Le Chevalier de Bergerac officer of dragoons: Andrew Glover; Friquet dragoon: Henry Neill; Maniquet theatre director: Jack Gogarty; La Corilla singer: Naomi O’Connell; Mademoiselle Paturelle assistant headmistress: Yvonne Howard; Mimi schoolgirl: Fflur Wyn; Bathilde schoolgirl: Raphaela Papadakis; Emma schoolgirl: Katie Bray; Conductor: David Parry; Director: Martin Duncan; Designer: Francis O’Connor; Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson; Choreographer: Ewan Jones; Assistant conductor: John Andrews; Assistant director: Matthew Eberhardt; Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus of schoolgirls, soldiers, actors and actresses.