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.’
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
‘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.