Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

The 2017 Glyndebourne Tour arrives in Canterbury with a satisfying Così fan tutte

A Così fan tutte set in the 18th century, in Naples, beside the sea: what, no meddling with Mozart? Whatever next! First seen in 2006, and now on its final run before ‘retirement’, Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward account (revived by Bruno Ravella) of Mozart’s part-playful, part-piquant tale of amorous entanglements was a refreshing opener at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where Glyndebourne Festival Opera arrived this week for the first sojourn of the 2017 tour.

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

Shameless grabs for power; vicious, self-destructive dynastic in-fighting; a self-righteous and unwavering sense of entitlement; bruised egos and integrity jettisoned. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was the current Tory government that was being described. However, we are not in twenty-first-century Westminster, but rather in seventh-century Lombardy, the setting for Handel’s 1725 opera, Rodelinda, Richard Jones’s 2014 production of which is currently being revived at English National Opera.

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

Director Mario Bava’s motion picture, Hercules in the Haunted World, was released in Italy in November 1961, and in the United States in April 1964. In 2010 composer Patrick Morganelli wrote a chamber opera entitled Hercules vs. Vampires for Opera Theater Oregon.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]
05 Nov 2014

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

Opera Rara brought a rare performance of Donizetti’s first opera for the Paris Opera to the Royal Festival Hall on 4 November 2014, following recording sessions for the opera.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]

 

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Opera Rara Chorus and soloists Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley and Wynne Evans.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1840. The work was created in double-quick time and was based on his Italian opera Poliuto, which had been cancelled just before the premiere in Naples owing to the plot’s element of religious martyrdom. Such subjects were, however, standard territory for the Paris Opera and Donizetti was able to re-cast the work as a four-act French Grand Opera with ballet to a new libretto by Eugene Scribe.Though Donizetti kept much of the original music it was re-cast into the sort of forms expected by the rather prescriptive Paris Opera. The result is an opera which fascinatingly moves between French and Italian forms so that, for example, Sévère has a very Italian caballetta embedded in the very French grand choral finale to Act two.

It is a long work, Sir Mark Elder and his forces gave us well over three hours of music even without performing the ballet. And it is written on a large scale, for large forces. The orchestra fielded a complement of around 50 strings, double woodwind plus piccolo and four bassoons (which Donizetti used to lovely effect in the overture), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones and an off-stage banda for four trumpets and three trombones. The French kept valveless horns for far longer than anyone else, so the horns were all hand stopped and each had a bewildering array of crooks, and the trumpeters similarly had two or three different instruments.

Set in Roman Armenia, the opera opens with the baptism into Christianity of the general Polyeucte (Michael Spyres). But Christians are proscribed, and Polyeucte is married to Pauline (Joyce El-Khoury) who is daughter of the governor Félix (Brindley Sherratt). Félix is introducing new laws threatening execution on anyone who gets baptised. The resulting struggle between pagan and Christian, public duty and private belief, is exacerbated by the fact the the new proconsul come to prosecute the new anti-Christian laws is Sévère (David Kempster) whom Pauline once loved (and still does) but thought was dead on the battle field.

The plot provides plenty of the ceremonial opportunities necessary in French Grand Opera, processions in the dark in catacombs, a Roman triumph, pagan ceremonies and the final throwing of the Christians to the lions in the arena. Donizetti doesn’t try to re-invent or re-structure the tradition as Verdi would do, and the work is not the masterpiece that Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is, but the music here is rich and rewarding. And the very Italian cast to the melodic material makes for an additional frisson.

One of the key scenes, however, would be a problem for modern producers I think. Pauline visits Polyeucte in prison and after he prays, she receives a vision and converts miraculously to Christianity. Donizetti’s response is to write some lovely music, unfortunately Pauline responds musically with an elaborate waltz which sounds completely out of key emotionally (though El-Khoury sang it beautifully). But the more personal scenes are very strong, particularly the third act with its confrontations between Pauline and Sévère, Pauline and Polyeucte, the questioning of Polyeucte’s Christian friend Néarque (Wynne Evans) and finally Polyeucte;s revelation of his Christianity and triumphant cabaletta which concludes the act. This was Donizetti at his best.

The role of Polyeucte was written for Gilbert Duprez, one of the singers that effectively invented the modern tenor voice; taking the chest voice up to top C and banishing the elaborate falsetto coloratura that was common until then. Whilst heroic for its time, Polyeucte requires a singer who can combine heroics with stamina, sustaining the high tessitura of the role but still able to sing with finesse and flexibility. The American tenor Michael Spyres has sung quite a number of the tenor roles in the early 19th century French Grand Opera repertoire (we saw him in Auber’s La muette de Portici in Paris in 2012) and his performance as Polyeucte was nothing less than heroic. He sang with untiring burnished tone, giving us fine nobility of phrasing and some finely flexible decorative passages. Dramatically he brought strong commitment to the role, making it believable and certainly a lot more than just a string of arias and ensembles.

The role of Pauline varied between dramatic declamation and ravishingly elaborated coloratura; it seemed as if Pauline’s response to stress was to break out in roulades. El-Khoury not only sang these beautifully, but used her lovely smoky voice to give dramatic weight to Pauline’s more vehement moments. You could imagine the role being sung with more weight and bite, but the original Pauline was Julie Dorus-Gras who created Berlioz’s Teresa and Eudoxie in Halevy’s La Juive - both roles with roulades galore. Like Spyres, El-Khoury brought dramatic commitment as well as technical poise to create a highly sympathetic and ravishing performance.

David Kempster was brilliant as Sévère, deprived of his lover Pauline yet required to find clemency for her husband. Kempster let fly brilliantly in the cavatina and caballetta the are part of the act two finale, and elsewhere brought finesse and sympathy to the role. Brindley Sherratt thundered magnificently as the governor Félix, but this was not a one-sided performance and Sherratt showed the character’s sympathetic side in his interchanges with his daughter. On the other hand, all Clive Bayley’s character of Callisthènes was required to do was thunder and he did so magnificently too. Wynne Evans was Néarque, Polyeucte’s Christian friend. This is the second tenor role, required to hang around and sing duets with the tenor and generally start things off before the lead tenor gets the fireworks. Evans sang with some style and showed a real feeling of commitment as the Christian withstood the threats of torture.

The Paris Opera required operas to make good use of the chorus and there were plenty of opportunities here for the excellent Opera Rara Chorus, which was made up of both Christians and pagans. They sang with energy and verve, giving us some lovely detailed singing. Chorus members Rosalind Waters, Andrew Friendhoff and Simon Preece all provide strong support in small solo moments.

With a long, unfamiliar score the whole performance could have felt horribly flat but Mark Elder drew a stunning performance out of the orchestra, full of life and energy. They gave some really thrilling vital playing, with copious details articulated brilliantly so that the whole had real vitality. There were also some fine solo moments from individual players.

Les Martyrs is not a forgotten masterpiece, but it is by no means a write-off. The mature Donizetti’s first response to the challenge of writing French Grand Opera, it is a fascinating transitional work. Written on such a lavish scale, opportunities of seeing it even in concert are rare so Opera Rara are to be congratulated on being able to not only perform it but to do a studio recording as well. Mark Elder and his forces did the work proud and gave a thrillingly engrossing performance.

The performance was recorded for release on Opera Rara’s own CD label, available soon. For more details, visit the Opera Rara website. it will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15th November at 6.15pm GMT.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):