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

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - Ensemble Correspondances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Charpentier Histoires sacrées, staged - London Baroque Festival

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

Aïda in Seattle: don’t mention the war!

When Francesca Zambello presented Aïda at her own Glimmerglass Opera in 2012, her staging was, as they say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Fighter planes strafed the Egyptian headquarters as the curtain rose, water-boarding was the favored form of interrogation, Radames was executed by lethal injection.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida [Photo by Robert Workman]
26 Jun 2015

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida

Photos by Robert Workman

 

But the wonderfully taut plot, tensions between public duty and private desire, strongly drawn characters and challenging music can provide a highly satisfying experience, especially as the leading roles are some of the most challenging and rewarding in the repertoire. Opera Holland Park has a track record for daring, producing operas which stretch the limited technical resources of their stage, so it was with great interest that I went along to the company’s very first production of Aida, which debuted on 24 June 2015. Daniel Slater directed, with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Tim Mascall, with Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida, Peter Auty as Radames, Heather Shipp as Amneris, plus Graeme Broadbent as Ramfis, Jonathan Veira as Amonasro, Keel Watson as the King and Emily Blanch as a priestess. Manlio Benzi conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Inevitably we could not expect pyramids, camels and large scale theatrical effects. But Daniel Slater’s production was certainly not without surprises. The basic set consisted of a museum-like using the Holland Park House façade as backdrop and with statues from Ancient Egypt in a museum display. During the prelude, the chorus in modern dress (dinner suits and long dresses) exploded onto the stage and the opening scene was a party. Clearly we were in a modern Kingdom, albeit one obsessed by the past as Radames was inducted as general by dressing him in Ancient Egyptian garb, and for much of the second half the populace were dressed in neo-Ancient Egyptian fancy dress. Aida was a cleaning lady, busy cleaning up after the party-goers. The production was secularised, with Ramfis becoming a rather nasty political fixer. But the production had more surprises for us, when the captured Ethiopians are brought on in a small huddle they were dressed as service workers - cleaning ladies, janitors etc. Were they real Ethiopian captives who had been dressed like that to demonstrate that they were unimportant, or was the war on invading ‘Ethiopians’ really a border war with illegal immigrants? It was never made clear, but I inclined to the latter. Whichever, the Egyptians were displayed as rather nasty, selfish and unsympathetic.

aida-ohp-006---Heather-Shipp---Peter-Auty.pngHeather Shipp as Amneris and Peter Auty as Radames

But the removal religion from the plot, and the modernisation of the milieu also removed an essential element from the plot, the tension between public duty and private desires. In Daniel Slater's production I was not clear what Radames meant when he says he is renouncing his duty to his country, certainly he seemed to be emptying his wallet? The end result was gripping theatre, but it wasn't quite the Aida that Verdi envisaged.

When staging the opera the biggest question is not where to set it, after all Verdi’s plot works in a whole variety of situations, but what to do with the triumph scene. Aida came between the grand French version of Don Carlos and the first Italian version of that opera, Don Carlo. In Aida, with its combination of intimate scenes, and a conflict between public duty and private emotional desires in the context of a grand historical narrative, Verdi would seem to have been interested in re-working the French grand opera form to suit the Italian stage. This means that the triumph scene functions very like some of the large scale historical scenes with ballets in French grand opera. Wherever you set it, it needs large forces to bring it off, and frankly a lot of the music is not top-notch Verdi. A logical step would seem to be to cut it, but no-one does. Daniel Slater and movement director Maxine Braham gave us an orgy like party scene in which the Egyptians seemed to over indulge in everything in celebration of their ‘triumph’ over the Ethiopians. It made dramatic sense, and the chorus was clearly having fun, but the scene went on far too long, yet it was clearly appreciated by most of the audience.

The production worked because Opera Holland Park had assembled a strong and balance team of soloists under conductor Manlio Benzi. Whatever you thought of the ideas behind the production, the musical values were very high indeed and Daniel Slater had drawn vibrant performances from all concerned.

Aida is rather a passive role, and one of Gweneth Ann Jeffers (many) strengths was that even before she sang a note she had conveyed much of the character’s interior life. Throughout the opera her face, eyes and body language were profoundly expressive and gave us real insight into Aida’s mental stress. Gweneth Ann Jeffers has a substantial, vibrant voice (previously she has sung La Gioconda, Leonora in La forza del destino and Santuzza at Opera Holland Park and she has performed Aida at a number of theatres including Finish National Opera), yet she was also able to spin a beautiful long line. The Nile scene was sung with real expressive finesse with some finely extended quiet high notes. Throughout there was this sense of line, combined with a vibrant, well filled feeling for Verdi’s phrasing. She and Peter Auty’s Radames developed a really intense relationship, again using eyes and body language well before they sang a note together. Both brought out the secure core of the underlying relationship, the ending was never in doubt. The final scene gave us some finely sinuous lines in Verdi’s glorious melodies, though Daniel Slater did not help matters here by making both of them fatally ill and having the scene performed crawling about the floor. This was one area where I felt that less would have been more.

aida-ohp-125---Graeme-Broadbent---Peter-Auty.pngGraeme Broadbent as Ramfis and Peter Auty as Radames

If I said that Peter Auty’s Radames was a good steady portrayal of the hero, making him solid and dependable, then though sounds unexciting then it must be set into context of a role which few tenors today can sing with any degree of credit. Peter Auty gave a robust account of Celeste Aida with a climax which was secure, and expressive even if a trifle louder than ideal. But once past this hurdle he developed in strength, intensity and a feeling of the heroic, this was no stand and deliver performance.

Heather Shipp was a powerful Amneris, combining a vibrant vocal performance with a highly musical personality. She was very much an Amneris who chewed the scenery, but did so with a musical sense too. The Act 2 scene with Aida, where Amneris tricks Aida into revealing she loves Radames, was particularly strong with the two singers making a balance pairing. And Heather Shipp’s performance revealed what we already knew, Amneris was a complete bitch goddess - attractive, powerful, power-dressed and vicious. Her wonderful final solo scene was superbly done, Heather Shipp really held the stage with her strong, vibrant voice and intense dramatic presence, but the effect was weakened by making Peter Auty’s Radames run around, fleeing from the priests. Another example of the feeling that Daniel Slater was over-egging the drama.

Jonathan Veira made highly sympathetic Amonasro, bringing intensity to the role but he seemed to want to punch each note out so that his performance though vibrant rather lost any sense of line. He and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers poignantly brought out the tension in their relationship.

Graeme Broadbent's Ramfis was a far stronger personality, far more involved in the drama than is sometimes the case and he turned in a wonderfully vivid, at times alarming portrayal of a nasty piece of work. Keel Watson brought his large voice to bear on the King to create a really larger than life musical personality.

Emily Blanch made a fine impression in the small role of the priestess, now reduced simply to a cabaret vamp, and Peter Davoren was the messenger in Act One.

The chorus (chorus master Nicholas Jenkins), with no extra dancers involved in the production, were hard working and delivered a really strong musical performance throughout, singing with strong, vividly focussed tone. Whilst I might have had doubts about the staging of the Triumph scene, the quality of the musical and dramatic performance from the chorus was never in doubt. In the men only sections of the opera, the male chorus made a fine, firm sound and had a nice line in threatening behaviour. The women were seductive in the extreme in their scenes.

I was slightly worried about balance at first, as Manlio Benzi seemed to encouraging a strong and colourful account of the score from the orchestra but this settled down after a while and we were able to sit back and enjoy a vibrantly dramatic account of the score.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Aida: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Radames: Peter Auty, Amneris: Heather Shipp, Ramfis: Graeme Broadbent, Amonasro: Jonathan Veira, the King: Keel Watson, priestess: Emily Blanch, messenger: Peter Davoren Conductor: Manlio Benzi with the City of London Sinfonia. Director: Daniel Slater, Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins, Lighting: Tim Mascall. Opera Holland Park, 24th June 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):