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

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Anthony Michaels-Moore as Don Carlo di Vargas [Photo by Robert Workman]
14 Nov 2015

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anthony Michaels-Moore as Don Carlo di Vargas

Photos by Robert Workman

 

Seated at a grandiose table, a black silhouette, swirled in mist, is suddenly illuminated by blazing white light, next framed by a towering triangle of light whose tip points upwards like an aspiring cathedral tower (lighting design by Tim Mitchell). But, we are in a world wrenched by violence and chaos, and the Church will offer no consolation or salvation. Bieito’s milieu is Spain, during the Civil War: the only brief flashes of colour are provided by the waving of the red-yellow nationalist flag and the shedding of blood.

It’s also a world that Bieito feels close to: born in northern Spain’s Miranda de Ebro in 1963, Bieito tells us, in a programme note, of his grandmother’s stories of ‘shots being fired behind the cemetery walls as she lay in her bed at night […] every morning she would be greeted by the same scene: a pile of dead bodies in the forecourt by the wall’. Her ‘terrible stories’ are invoked by the production’s visual imagery. Upon the white, balconied façades which border the public square — then swivel, slide and tilt to form depressing back-alleys and fire-escapes — contemporary newsreels of marching armies, public protests and the wailing distress of a dying child are projected. Alongside them, Picasso’s icons of pain and anguish tell their own story: agonised faces, severed limbs, gaping wounds, a horse falling in agony, the bare lightbulb of a torturer’s cell (video designs by Sarah Derendinger).

Updating Verdi’s opera to the years of the Spanish Civil War makes sense. Both Picasso and Verdi employ a big canvas; and, the cover-image of the ENO programme — a sword up to its hilt in blood and casting a crucifix-shadow on an ochre wall — may allude to the toxic tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and the Republic, and the Church’s role in adding fuel to the flames when conflict broke out.

But, the drama of Verdi’s opera hinges on the private and not the public world; specifically the triangle formed by Leonora, her beloved Alvaro, and her vengeful brother Carlo di Vargas. Here, Bieito’s touch is less sure. The static nature of the thought-provoking images he and his designer, Rebecca Ringst, present ultimately hinders the dramatic currents that Verdi’s score articulates. We are presented with photographic snap-shops but these do not come alive to form a tragic narrative. The ENO chorus, in tremendous voice, stand and deliver. Even the principals seem barely to communicate; all the relationships are dysfunctional. In the opening scene Leonora and her father, the Marquis of Calatrava, sit at the table, immobile, paralysed by patriarchal disapproval and oppression. During the impassioned duets — for Alvaro and Leonora in Act 1, and Alvaro and Carlo in Act 3 — the protagonists’ emotions are sung but not dramatized.

There are no assassins from whom Alvaro may rescue Carlo. And, there is no sign of army life or military action. When Alvaro sings of his misery in his Act 3 aria, ‘La vita è inferno all’infelice’, he appears, not among his fellow troops but poking through, and isolated by, the gaping window of one of the sloping façades. He is later joined, in another window frame, by the surgeon — whose white apron might have been stained as much by blood from the abattoir as from the battlefield. The only thing that moves is the scenery: and even this paradoxically hindered the momentum when, after Carlo and Alvaro had dashed off to fight their duel, a lengthy pause intervened as the stage-hands struggled to re-position the façades, forcing Leonora to put her great prayer for peace, ‘Pace, pace mio Dio!’, on hold.

14554.pngScene from The Force of Destiny

The significance of some of Bieito’s smaller gestures was not immediately fathomable. Why, when she crouches over her father’s dead body in the opening Act, does Leonora remove his belt? What does the image of a girl scribbling on a blackboard — which is projected onto the front-cloth during the second interview — portend? On the other hand, the symbolism of some motifs is heavy-handed: Don Carlo’s Act 2 aria, in which he pretends to be a student from Salamanca named Pereda, was ‘sabotaged’ by the noisy shredding of books by the peasant crowd — an allusion, one presumes, to the burning by Franco’s troops in 1939 of the entire library of Pompeu Fabra, who had dedicated himself to the study of the Catalan language — an act of cultural vandalism which was accompanied by cries of ‘Abajo la inteligencia!’ (Down with intelligentsia!)

The directorial gestures leave us in no doubt, though, of the cruelty of the world depicted. In Act 3, Preziosilla’s ‘Rataplan’ hymn of praise to military life becomes an incitement to brutality: the soldiers oblige by executing some of the starving refugees, while Preziosilla indulges her own bloodlust by savagely kicking a pregnant woman. Fra Melitone’s chastisement of their godlessness feels ineffectual and impotent in the face of such depravity. On becoming a hermit, Leonora is crowned with a barbed wire laurel — with which she later chokes herself.

If the human relationships between the protagonists interest Bieito less than abstract notions of fanatical hatred and passion, then the singers still create compelling portraits. As Alvaro, Gwyn Hughes Jones demonstrated a gallant Verdian power: in Jeremy Sams’ rather clunky and mundane translation, Alvaro sings of a ‘fiery beacon’ and ‘glory and splendour’ in his Act 1 aria, apposite terms for Hughes Jones’s vocal heroism. However, it didn’t always feel comfortable: he reached the top, but the effort required was evident, and Hughes Jones’s tone and intonation lost focus in some of the quieter passages.

Anthony Michaels-Moore convincingly portrayed Carlo’s bitter, obsessive vengefulness. This was a well-judged performance: Michaels-Moore took command of the stage at the start of Act 4 when Carlo forces Alvaro to fight. Throughout he used his baritone expressively, and employed a range of colours which conveyed Carlo’s private torments.

The real star, though, was American soprano, Tamara Wilson, making her role debut as Leonora and her first appearance in the UK. She has a magnificent voice, a gleaming lirico-spinto which can soar with enormous power at the top but which also has richness, depth and hints of darkness at the bottom. Able to modulate the dynamics with sure control, Wilson rode the dramatic climaxes with ease, effortlessly ascending above and cutting through the orchestra. Her intonation was unfailingly true, and in Act 1 Leonora was tender and vulnerable. Wilson brightened her soprano in the monastery scene, floating above the monks’ chanting, perhaps intimating hope; but she saved her best for a resplendent ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio!’ in the last Act.

14559.pngMatthew Best as Marquis of Calatrava, Tamara Wilson as Donna Leonora di Vargas, Clare Presland as Curra, and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro

Rinat Shaham’s Preziosilla was feisty and vivacious, and Andrew Shore — who is coming to the end of his run as Bartolo’s in ENO Barber of Seville — swapped comic foolishness for ecclesiastical menace and, as a petulant Fra Melitone, found some surprisingly dark baritonal tones. He was effectively complemented by James Cresswell’s mellifluous and well-projected Padre Guardiano. Replacing the indisposed Matthew Best, Robert Winslade —Anderson sang the short role of the Marquis of Calatrava with a firmly supported bass-baritone; when accidentally shot by Alvaro, he slid with impressive melodrama to the floor, dragging table-cloth and candelabras with him.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth chose to perform Verdi’s original, shorter Overture. During the evening, he drew playing of tremendous vigour and strength from the ENO orchestra, moving swiftly through the score — sometimes thwarting the audience’s desire to applaud individual arias — and injecting momentum which went some way to compensate for the lack of movement on stage.

Overall, Bieito presents many arresting moments but they are not connected by a sustained dramatic thread and this weakens the impact of the score’s own dramatic persuasiveness. The director cites Antoine Saint-Exupéry: ‘Civil war is not war, but disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves.’ Perhaps that is why Bieito has decided that Leonora should take her own life, rather than die at the hands of the mortally wounded Carlo who, in Piave’s libretto, stabs her as bends over his body. But, in so doing — and though Carlo sings, ‘I am weary of this struggle with fate’ — Bieito denies us a revelation of the tragic force of destiny.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Don Alvaro: Gwyn Hughes Jones, Donna Leonora di Vargas: Tamara Wilson, Don Carlo di Vargas:Anthony Michaels-Moore, Padre Guardiano: James Creswell, Fra Melitone: Andrew Shore, Preziosilla: Rinat Shaham, Marquis of Calatrava: Robert Winslade Anderson, Curra: Clare Presland, Trabuco: Adrian Dwyer, Alcade: Nicholas Folwell; Director: Calixto Bieito, Conductor:Mark Wigglesworth, Set Designer: Rebecca Ringst, Costume Designer: Ingo Krügler, Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell, Video Designer: Sarah Derendinger, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 9th November 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):