Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Rapt audience at Dutch National Opera’s riveting Walküre

“Don’t miss this final chance – ever! – to see Die Walküre”, urges the Dutch National Opera website.

Sarah Wegener sings Strauss and Jurowski’s shattering Mahler

A little under a month ago, I reflected on Vladimir Jurowski’s tempi in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. That willingness to range between extremes, often within the same work, was a very striking feature of this second concert, which also fielded a Mahler symphony - this time the Fifth. But we also had a Wagner prelude and Strauss songs to leave some of us scratching our heads.

Manon Lescaut in San Francisco

Of the San Francisco Opera Manon Lescauts (in past seasons Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni, Karita Mattila among others, all in their full maturity) the latest is Armenian born Parisian finished soprano Lianna Haroutounian in her role debut. And Mme. Haroutounian is surely the finest of them all.

A lukewarm performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette from the LSO and Tilson Thomas

A double celebration was the occasion for a packed house at the Barbican: the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mahler’s Third Symphony launches Prague Symphony Orchestra's UK tour

The Anvil in Basingstoke was the first location for a strenuous seven-concert UK tour by the Prague Symphony Orchestra - a venue-hopping trip, criss-crossing the country from Hampshire to Wales, with four northern cities and a pit-stop in London spliced between Edinburgh and Nottingham.

Rigoletto past, present and future: a muddled production by Christiane Lutz for Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Charlie Chaplin was a master of slapstick whose rag-to-riches story - from workhouse-resident clog dancer to Hollywood legend with a salary to match his status - was as compelling as the physical comedy that he learned as a member of Fred Karno’s renowned troupe.

Rinaldo Through the Looking-Glass: Glyndebourne Touring Opera in Canterbury

Robert Carsen’s production of Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2011, gives a whole new meaning to the phrases ‘school-boy crush’ and ‘behind the bike-sheds’.

Predatory power and privilege in WNO's Rigoletto at the Birmingham Hippodrome

At a party hosted by a corrupt and dissolute political leader, wealthy patriarchal predators bask in excess, prowling the room on the hunt for female prey who seem all too eager to trade their sexual favours for the promise of power and patronage. ‘Questa o quella?’ the narcissistic host sings, (this one or that one?), indifferent to which woman he will bed that evening, assured of impunity.

Virginie Verrez captivates in WNO's Carmen at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Jo Davies’ new production of Carmen for Welsh National Opera presents not the exotic Orientalism of nineteenth-century France, nor a tale of the racial ‘Other’, feared and fantasised in equal measure by those whose native land she has infiltrated.

Die Zauberflöte brings mixed delights at the Royal Opera House

When did anyone leave a performance of Mozart’s Singspiel without some serious head scratching?

Haydn's La fedeltà premiata impresses at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

‘Exit, pursued by an octopus.’ The London Underground insignia in the centre of the curtain-drop at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Silk Street Theatre, advised patrons arriving for the performance of Joseph Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded, 1780) that their Tube journey had terminated in ‘Arcadia’ - though this was not the pastoral idyll of Polixenes’ Bohemia but a parody of paradise more notable for its amatory anarchy than any utopian harmony.

Van Zweden conducts an unforgettable Walküre at the Concertgebouw

When native son Jaap van Zweden conducts in Amsterdam the house sells out in advance and expectations are high. Last Saturday, he returned to conduct another Wagner opera in the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series. The Concertgebouw audience was already cheering the maestro loudly before anyone had played a single note. By the end of this concert version of Die Walküre, the promise implicit in the enthusiastic greeting had been fulfilled. This second installment of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung was truly memorable, and not just because of Van Zweden’s imprint.

Purcell for our time: Gabrieli Consort & Players at St John's Smith Square

Passing the competing Union and EU flags on College Green beside the Palace of Westminster on my way to St John’s Smith Square, where Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort & Players were to perform Henry Purcell’s 1691 'dramatic opera' King Arthur, the parallels between England now and England then were all too evident.

The Dallas Opera Cockerel: It’s All Golden

I greatly enjoyed the premiere of The Dallas Opera’s co-production with Santa Fe Opera of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel when it debuted at the latter in the summer festival of 2018.

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Philip Glass: Music with Changing Parts - European premiere of revised version

Philip Glass has described Music with Changing Parts as a transitional work, its composition falling between earlier pieces like Music in Fifths and Music in Contrary Motion (both written in 1969), Music in Twelve Parts (1971-4) and the opera Einstein on the Beach (1975). Transition might really mean aberrant or from no-man’s land, because performances of it have become rare since the very early 1980s (though it was heard in London in 2005).

Wexford Festival Opera 2019

The 68th Wexford Festival Opera, which runs until Sunday 3rd November, is bringing past, present and future together in ways which suggest that the Festival is in good health, and will both blossom creatively and stay true to its roots in the years ahead.

Cenerentola, jazzed to the max

Seattle Opera’s current staging of Cenerentola is mostly fun to watch. It is also a great example of how trying too hard to inflate a smallish work to fill a huge auditorium can make fun seem more like work.

Bottesini’s Alì Babà Keeps Them Laughing

On Friday evening October 25, 2019, Opera Southwest opened its 47th season with composer Giovanni Bottesini and librettist Emilio Taddei’s Alì Babà in a version reconstructed from the original manuscript score by Conductor Anthony Barrese.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]
01 Feb 2015

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]

 

It was rejected in a national competition, prompting the composer to despair of ever gaining recognition in his home country, and this ‘failure’ deepened his earlier pessimism with regard to the indifference with which his nation viewed his work. In 1907 he had written to his mother: ‘With the Hungarian oxen—that is to say, the Hungarian public, I shall not bother anymore.’

Today Bluebeard is considered one of Bartók’s finest scores, fraught with Gothic darkness and abundant in orchestral riches and impressions. It is essentially a ‘static’ work and thus works well in the concert hall. Balázs reduced Charles Perrault’s original ‘fairy-tale’ to just two characters — the eponymous aristocrat and his new wife, Judith; and the ‘action’ — as the enthralled Judith appeals to her husband to reveal what is behind the seven locked doors within the cold confines of his castle — is fundamentally symbolic. What we witness is a psychological drama of their relationship and an emotional probing of the Duke’s distorted, tormented psyche.

The opera thus requires singers of considerable dramatic focus and expressive range; originally the Hungarians Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó were to assume the roles of the ill-fated Judith and her troubled master in this concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit. In the event, both were indisposed through illness. As Wilde might have quipped, to lose one soloist is unlucky, but to lose two looks like carelessness, but there was nothing unfortunate about the replacement soloists on this occasion: Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi and bass-baritone Sir Willard White.

Komlósi was compelling in the early scenes: Judith’s appeals, blooming with her love for her new husband, were rich and warm, full of youthful excitement and naïve self-assurance. Impassioned and confident, Komlósi’s Judith was certain that she could assuage the castle’s inherent pain, as exhibited by the ‘weeping flagstones’ and ‘icy marble’: ‘Open, open! Throw [the doors] open!/ All those locks must be unfasten’d./ Wind shall scour them, light shall enter!’ Even as the vistas revealed behind the locked doors became ever more troubling, and a telling note of anxious vulnerability at times diminished the bright vocal glow, Komlósi’s mezzo retained an intimation of defiant will. Singing from memory, the naturalness of her phrasing was not surprisingly but was still persuasively engaging.

Though I am no scholar of languages, and am certainly no expert in Eastern European vernaculars, I found Willard White’s Hungarian diction similarly convincing (a libretto and translation was included in the programme booklet). However, the Prologue was spoken and while this is not in itself an unusual decision — and White presented the introductory text with characteristic gravitas and dignity — the spoken English sat uncomfortably beside the sung Hungarian. I’m not sure that it would not have been better to omit the Prologue entirely, so that we were plunged immediately into the psychological soundscape, with no sense of a narrative ‘frame’.

Bluebeard is a role White has sung many times and he perfectly embodied the inscrutability and hauteur of the eponymous torturer, while his legato bass-baritone both intimated a genuine sense of concern for his new wife and insinuated the seductiveness of evil. I was reminded of Iago’s recognition that Cassio, ‘hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly’ — it is not that he envies Cassio his innate ‘goodness’, rather than he recognises the absence of this quality — and no desire for it — within himself. White inspired both horror and pity; he was magisterial but also strangely vulnerable, and at the close, when Bluebeard addresses his former wives, he seemed transported to a distant world, deep in his own subconscious.

Dramatic ‘development’ is enacted through the evolution and juxtaposition of aural colours, and the RPO and Dutoit presented the imagistic score with precision, and by turns, delicacy and penetration. Motifs such as the dissonant minor second ‘blood motif’ — symbolic of the blood which has stained Bluebeard’s armoury and seeped into the garden — gained intensity through repetition.

There was some striking playing by individual sections and soloists: James Fountain’s trumpet, when the second door was opened to reveal the armoury, was fittingly martial and bellicose; the glistening of the riches of Bluebeard’s treasury was beautifully evoked by the soft sweetness of flutes, celesta and two eloquent solo violins (Duncan Riddell and Tamás András); when the secret garden was revealed behind the fourth door, Laurence Davies’ horn solo possessed a Straussian depth and warmth. The strange juxtapositions of celesta, harp and timpani made the ‘Lake of Tears’ both beautiful and terrible.

The climax that occurs with the opening of the fifth door was thunderous and disturbing: the resounding organ (Andrew Lucas) joining the orchestra in a resonating boom suggesting the infinite expanse and sublimity of Bluebeard’s kingdom. But, the most unnerving moment came with the uncanny harmonic sequence which accompanies the opening of the final, seventh door, and the release of a silvery beam of moonlight which bathes the protagonists in its eerie shimmer.

There was a Faustian thread, as well as a Hungarian one, running through the evening’s programme, and the RPO opened the concert with Berlioz’s ‘Hungarian March’ from the first part of the composer’s légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust. In advance of his 1846 visit to Pesth, Berlioz was advised by Count Ráday, the intendant of the Hungarian National Theatre, that he would find success awaiting him if he were to arrange the national Hungarian air, ‘Rákóczy-induló’. The ‘Rákóczi March’ had been the unofficial state anthem of Hungary before Ferenc KölcseyHimnusz’ of 1823 had supplanted it; the latter remains the official national anthem to this day. Berlioz’s arrangement was greeted with such enthusiasm and excitement that when the composer began work on La Damnation de Faust he included the march in the opening scene, which he set on ‘the plains of Hungary’ and in which Faust watches troops pass by in rhythmic step to its revolutionary strains.

The LPO began with a rousing fanfare from horns, cornets and trumpets, and there was a buoyant spring in the step of the pizzicato strings and staccato woodwind which accompanied the bright and breezy melody played by flutes and clarinet. Subsequently, Dutoit did not always maintain the tension and momentum: dynamic contrasts might have been more marked, and the imitative fragmentation of the melody more rhythmically incisive. The dull thud of the bass drum effected a shift of mood, intimating an approaching foe, and Dutoit generated excitement towards the percussive conclusion, the sustained final chord swelling as if with nationalistic pride and glory.

The ‘Byronic’ prodigy, pianist and composer Franz Liszt was the final link in the thematic chain: Liszt composed his own ‘Faust Symphony’ and his fifteenth Hungarian Rhapsody is based upon the ‘Rákóczy-induló’. Here, it was Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto that was performed, a structurally inventive work in which the single long movement is divided into six sections during which various themes evolve cyclically. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the RPO for a performance which was proficient but somewhat perfunctory. It’s a difficult work to bring off persuasively: while the First Concerto has Romantic bravura, ardour and swagger a plenty, the Second is more pensive and elevated, requiring attentive listening from the audience, and a strong sense of direction from conductor and soloist. Hamelin certainly had all the notes but the effortlessness of the execution made the virtuosity seem rather routine. There was some fine solo playing from the members of the RPO with clarinettist Katherine Lacy and lead cellist, Tim Gill, deserving especial praise.

But, it was the compelling performance of Bartók’s brooding masterpiece which provided the evening’s poetry.

Claire Seymour


Programme and performers:

Hector Berlioz — ‘Rakoczi March’ from The Damnation of Faust; Franz Liszt — Piano Concerto No.2; Béla Bartók — Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Charles Dutoit conductor, Marc-André Hamelin piano, Ildikó Komlósi mezzo-soprano, Williard White bass-baritone, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Tuesday 27th January 2015.

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):