02 Jul 2014
La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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’.
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Theseus’ words to his wife, Hippolyta, spoken before the Mechanicals’ theatricals in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would be an apt epigraph for Frederic Wake-Walker’s new Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera — the first time the House, for whom Mozart has been the cornerstone, has staged the composer’s adolescent experimentation with opera seria. For, Wake-Walker’s basic concept rests upon that old theatrical conundrum: reality or fantasy?
The artifice takes two forms: in Act 1 it is the stylisation of the eighteenth-century theatre, in the final two Acts it is the fickleness and elusiveness of the human heart — or, as Shakespeare put it: ‘O me! What eyes hath Love put in my head,/Which have no correspondence with true sight’ (Sonnet CXLVIII). So, in the opening Act the exhibitionism and stagecraft are foregrounded, before the very edifices of the stage itself are literally torn down in an effort to uncover the truth about love.
In interview in the Glyndebourne programme book, the director declares his intention to make the characters seem ‘not quite rooted in the real world’, a decision supported by the set which ‘removes the characters from any outside world’. He may define the ‘outside world’ as ‘any sense of politics or religion or anything’, but here ‘anything’ could also mean matters horticultural, for Wake-Walker places more emphasis on the ‘pretence’ indicated in the work’s title than on the disguised heroine’s assumed profession. The virtual absence of a garden is a pity, for the symmetries and geometries of the eighteenth-century formal garden both infer the desire to impose artificial order upon nature, but also permit much intrigue and subterfuge — as evidenced later by Mozart’s in Così and Figaro.
Instead, designer Antony McDonaldpresents us with what the director describes as a Lustschloss, ‘aplace where people can behave differently where people can come out of themselves and go crazy’. This feeding ground for folly is a gracious, if slightly worn-around-the-edges, rococo cupola room, appointed with towering windows, shadowy niches and firework recesses. In Act 2, this ‘real’ chamber is replaced by a papery pastiche; the crumbling façades are violently swept aside and amid the ruins the doting protagonists find themselves transformed into shepherd and shepherdess, adrift in a pastoral wilderness with only a dented mantelpiece and a dainty parlour sofa to hint at the ‘artifices’ of the formal, class-stratified society from which they have escaped. After the overt theatrical effrontery of Act 1, the direction makes little attempt subsequently to communicate directly to the audience with the result that character and situation are sometimes hard to fathom.
Christiane Karg, Joélle Harvey and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke anchor an expert Mozartean ensemble. Glyndebourne’s new Music Director Robin Ticciati conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Lighting designer Lucy Carter does provide some striking chiaroscuro effects, boldly complementing the directorial juxtapositions. But, overall it feels as if Wake-Walker is trying rather too hard to make sense of the nonsensical. Indeed, productions of the opera tend to be justified by the historical importance of this youthful example of Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius, and weaknesses blamed upon the inane libretto rather than the music.
The opera tells of Violante, who has been beaten and left for dead by her lover Count Belfiore — here we witness the aristocrat’s desperate bid to escape the crime-scene during the overture — and who takes refuge amid the flower beds in order to save her skin and her reputation. (It’s not clear why in the ensuing action she should selflessly save her abuser from accusations of murder, then forgive him and go to such lengths to win him back). Don Anchise, the Podestà (Mayor) of Lagonero, loves his new gardener, Sandrina (the disguised Violante), to the chagrin of his enamoured servant, Serpetta. Serpetta, though, has her own admirer in Sandrina’s cousin Nardo (actually her servant Roberto, in disguise). Arminda, the Podestà’s niece, casting aside her former lover, Ramiro, now adores Belfiore — Violante’s former lover and assailant. By the end, one can sympathise with Podestà who just seems to wish they’d all get on with it and marry someone, and give him some peace!
In the title role, Christiane Karg blends expressive grace with technical virtuosity, her gleaming soprano soaring through effortless, long-breathed phrases. Sandrina’s end-of-Act 1 aria was imbued with romantic pathos, and Karg characterised the seria situations without undue caricature. She didn’t quite convince as a horticulturalist though but this wasn’t her fault, as she was not helped in this regard by the direction or costuming: attired in cornflower blue silk gown, as she sighed and waned, this Sandrina did not look ideally made for agricultural exertion beyond a touch of gentle rose-pruning.
Her troubled lover, Count Belfiore, was pleasingly sung by Joel Prieto. The Spanish tenor’s physical elegance was matched by his beautifully shaped vocal lines and tenderness of tone, although perhaps Prieto’s voice is a little too slight to convey Belfiore’s insane ardour. More commanding of presence was Nicole Heaston as Arminda, whose strong tone and ability to carry off some fantastically extravagant costumes impressed equally. Arminda’s rejected lover, the black leather-clad Ramiro, was sung with flexibility by mezzo soprano Rachel Frenkel, her rich lyricism sparked by a flash of fire in her excellent Act 2 aria. Joèlle Harvey was acerbic and spirited as the spurned Serpetta, and she used her bright soprano most expressively. As Podestà, tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke delivered an arresting Act 1 aria and was a picture of buffo bumptiousness throughout.
Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt was indisposed, and was only able to sing the recitatives of the heroine’s devoted servant Nardo, his mute, lively acting supplemented in the arias by Gavan Ring’s warm bass resounding from the side of the circle. Ring deservedly received the most appreciative applause of the evening — and, it would have been fitting if he had been able to join the other principals on stage rather than receive his accolade from the shadows of the auditorium.
Wake-Walker has judiciously applied the pruning shears to both arias and recitative, and there is some re-ordering, but — even with such a uniformly excellent cast, and especially in the long second half — there are a few redundant arias, showing that the precocious composer might have acquired musical mastery but had not yet sharpened his dramatic instincts. That said, there are many moments which look ahead to the treasures to come, most particularly the two Act final ensembles where conductor Robin Ticciati moved things along swiftly, highlighting the juxtapositions between characters. And, there was a directorial nod towards Don Giovanni with the cloaked entrance of the masked gang, searching for Sandrina, at the end of Act 2, as the characters mistook other’s identity in the darkness.
Ticciati expertly guided some of today’s finest baroque specialists, from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, through a graceful, limpid performance. The pace was neither too leisurely nor too frantic, Ticciati responding thoughtfully to the juxtaposition of comic and serious, and the dramatic details were judiciously pointed with some fine instrumental solos and the astute, sensitive continuo playing of Andrew Smith and cellist Luise Buchberger.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the four lovers return to regularities of the Athenian court after the lunacy of the fairies’ wood, one of the beloveds, Demetrius, remains bewitched — order is restored but it is an order that depends upon enchantment and fantasy. This seems to be Wake-Walker’s essential argument: that the moment of most clarity, when Sandrina and Belfiore recognise the artifice about them, is also the moment of most madness. The director has moved Nardo’s Act 1 aria — which asserts the folly of loving women, accompanied by the mad frolics of the violin — to the final Act, preceding the closing duet in which the lovers realise that madness and love are indivisible bed-fellows. It’s a neat idea, but one might counter-argue that in fact the route to madness is to try to make sense of the absurd plot. In this case, depth and credibility of characterisation might be a surer path to ‘truth’ rather than artifice.
Cast and production information:
Don Anchise (Il Podestà, Mayor of Lagonero), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker; Sandrina (La Marchesa Violante Onesti), Christiane Karg; Ramiro, Rachel Frenkel; Serpetta, Joèlle Harvey; Nardo (Roberto), Gyula Orendt/Gavan Ring; Arminda, Nicola Heaston; Count Belfiore, Joel Prieto; Director, Frederic Wake-Walter; Conductor, Robin Ticciati; Designer, Antony McDonald; Lighting Designer, Lucy Carter; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday, 28th June 2014.