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

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

OSJ: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Harem

Opera San Jose kicked off its 35th anniversary season with a delectably effervescent production of their first-ever mounting of Mozart’s youthful opus, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Isouard's Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square

A good fairy-tale sweeps us away on a magic carpet while never letting us forget that for all the enchanting transformations, beneath the sorcery lie essential truths.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt]
02 Jun 2016

Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

Although Bohuslav Martinů’s short operas Ariane and Alexandre bis date from 1958 and 1937 respectively, there was a distinct tint of 1920s Parisian surrealism about director Rodula Gaitanou’s double bill, as presented by the postgraduate students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt]

 

Struggling with the score of The Greek Passion, Martinů seems to have turned to the tale of Ariadne and Theseus for light relief from the magic realism of what would be his last opera — a letter of June 1958 to his family explains that he was ‘taking a rest’ from the larger work — and he completed the 40-minute opera in just one month. The composer prepared the libretto fromLe voyage de Thésée by the French surrealist poet Georges Neveux — who was also the librettist of Martinů’s Julietta. Neveux added a dream-like ambiguity to the myth, with Ariane possibly in love with the Minotaur, who is representative of Thésée’s ‘other self’.

The libretto is full of unanswered, probably unanswerable, questions, and ambiguous suggestions. When Thésée calls for the Minotaure, an echo responds calling for ‘the other Thésée … the Thésée that was’ to come to his aid. When the mirror-image Minotaure appears, he challenges Thésée: ‘Who do you think I should look like? … Who dares to aim his blow at himself and die by his own hand?’ Ariane, regarding the dead beast, tells Thésée, ‘I knew he looked like you’. Who does Thésée kill?

Gaitanou takes this essentially unfathomable melange of divination and doppelgängers and grounds it in the Salle Wagram Ballroom in Paris which was, in the mid-1960s, an important recording venue, taking as her prompt Martinů’s admiration for and fascination with Maria Callas whom the composer hoped would perform the title role. (It was not to be, which may have been fortunate given the celebrity soprano’s vocal fragility at this time.)

The Salle was the home of Pathé-Marconi/EMI and designer Simon Corder decorates the studio with tape reels and microphones of the era, drawing inspiration from photographs (specifically those by Robert Doisneau and Sabine Weiss) of Callas recording Carmen at the Salle Wagram in 1964. The re-imagined recording session morphs the youths of Athens and Thésée’s companions into international stars and recording engineers, whose own entanglements and everyday routines form a background for the enacted recording of Martinů’s opera. In this way Gaitanou both taps into Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and continues the tradition of exploring the ‘meaning’ of our own lives through the re-telling of Greek myth.

Martinů’s score employs a lyrical idiom which roves from a neutral monadic idiom to the charm of Poulenc, to passionate emotional climaxes, and here it showcased some fine singing from the cast of young singers whose arias and brief snatches of recitative did a fine dual job of despatching the story swiftly and focusing on the characters’ emotions.

Both baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé as Thésée and bass Milan Siljanov as the Minotaure exhibited a strong dramatic weight. ‘In recording’, Olivé gave a noble account of the role, characterised by emotional restraint and dignified French declamation. His tone was full and his phrasing finely chiselled. Siljanov combines the heft of a bass with the richness of a baritone, and he gave a characterful portrayal, doubling also as the Old Man. Tenor Dominick Felix produced an urgent, attractive tone as Bouroun, who, impatient with Thésée’s distractedness, resolves to kills the Minotaure himself, with fatal consequences. The role of the Watchman who announces the arrival of Thésée in Knossos was taken by John Findon, who delivered his recitative-like soliloquy stylishly.

The central role of Ariane is a substantial coloratura part and the eponymous heroine’s bravura lament upon the departure of Thésée occupies the last quarter of the opera — think Monteverdi’s Arianne or Purcell’s Dido. Sweet of tone, and just about able to negotiate the virtuosic, and stratospheric, demands, Said’s soprano is, alas, far too light, and lacks both the cream and weight, to carry the emotional weight of the role. Neveux’s simple French was clearly enunciated but the nobility or profundity of Martinů’s musical language was not fully tapped, though Said worked hard at the phrasing and crafted some beautiful trailing diminuendos.

The score recalls Stravinsky in chirpy neo-baroque mode — Pulcinella, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1920 comes strongly to mind — but Martinů also punctuates Ariane with three fairly lengthy Sinfonias, à la Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and the GSMD Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, played them with crisp punchiness, the rhythms sharply defined and the woodwind colours striking.

The partnering work, Alexandre bis (translated as ‘Alexander Twice’ in English and ‘Dvakrát Alexandr’ in Czech) was composed in 1937 to an original libretto written in French by André Wurmser. It’s a variation on Così fan tutte, with a surreal twist.

Alexandre decides to test the fidelity of his wife, Armande, by shaving off his beard and posing as his cousin visiting from out of town. Armande is in fact virtuous: for years she has fended off persistent admirers. Now, however, she submits — even though she recognizes her husband in his deception. Just as Ariane cannot distinguish between Thésée and the Minotaur, so Alexandre is her husband but not her husband. We’re back in a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fissure between delusion and reality. Armande has betrayed her husband by loving her husband, and had fun; from now on she will be unfaithful, and so she succumbs to the urges of her serial admirer, Oscar. The maid Philomène and a singing portrait imitate Mozart’s Despina and Don Alfonso by commenting on, and interfering in, the action. Wurmser’s moral, unlike Da Ponte’s, turns its censure on the men: ‘Don't knowingly lead your wife into temptation, for the devil never sleeps, and there are never two without three.’ We’re all weak so don’t take the risk. This is, after all, as the subtitle tell us, ‘The Tragedy of a Man who had his Beard Cut’.

The opera is characterised by bizarre juxtapositions and non sequiturs — of the kind that the surrealists believed allowed the unconscious to express truth. Gaitanou and Corder play up the comic absurdity by setting the work in a pre-WW2 bourgeois salon inspired by the roof garden of a Champs-Élysées apartment which was designed by Le Corbusier in 1930, and decorated by Salvador Dali, for the eccentric multi-millionaire art collector Charles de Beistegui.

Above a carpet of grass, topiary vegetation is sculpted alongside a rococo fireplace and mirror, peacock fireguard, white garden seating and a parrot on a decorative stand. The outside-inside salon is placed within curving white walls beyond which an azure blue sky glows above pedestal-mounted, gleaming bronzed models of L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre-Dame.

The zany costumes of Cordelia Chisholm and Victoria Newlyn’s mad-cap but expertly co-ordinated choreography — it’s all careering bicycles and tutu-clad dancing devils — add to the lunacy: by the time we get to Armande’s lurid dream sequence we’re not sure what’s real and what’s wished-for fantasy.

Martinů alternates spoken dialogue with sung numbers in the opera buffa tradition, and the cast were fully committed to the absurdity and physical farce without making vocal sacrifices. Olivé again impressed as Alexandre, but ditched Thésée’s mythic solemnity for hamminess worthy of Feydeau. Martinů had asked Wurmser for a libretto including a singing cat, but accepted the writer’s compromise of a singing portrait which acts as a narrator to a tale of bourgeois infidelity. Once again, Siljanov was vigorous of voice, delighting in the monologues which begin with humour and veer towards hysterical aphoristic moralising. He inhabited this bizarre role with aplomb.

As Armande, soprano Elizabeth Karani was more dramatically restrained, but sang with a clean and attractive soprano. Bianca Andrew sparkled as the maid, Philomène, lamenting in her first aria that she is condemned to a life ‘cleaning house in a comic opera’. Andrew’s mezzo-soprano is warm and agile. Tenor John Findon impressed as the persistently flirtatious fop, Oscar.

Redmond summoned plenty of fizz from the pit too, though it was the strings who shone this time with the woodwind sometimes challenged by the score’s demands. That said, the instrumental playing during the evening was some of the best I have heard from the young GSMD players and would be a credit to any professional ensemble.

Alexandre was intended by the Parisian-resident Martinů for performance at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In the event it was not premiered until 18 February 1964 at the Mannheim Opera House, conducted by Georg Calder. The first performance of Ariane took place posthumously, in 1961, two years after Martinů’s death, at the Musiktheater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The latter opera actually owed its UK premiere to the GSMD, when it was performed as part of a ‘Martinů festival’ at the Barbican in 2009, in a staging by Stephen Medcalf, conducted by Clive Timms.

This double bill showed us how grateful we should be to our Conservatoires for taking risks and delivering operatic rarities with such wit and panache.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production details:

Ariane :
Ariane — Nicola Said, Thésée — Josep-Ramon Olivém, Le Minotaure — Milan Siljanov, Bouroun — Dominick Felix, 1er garcon — Robin Horgan, 2ème garcon — Bertie Watson, 3ème garcon — James Liu, 4 ème garçon — Laurence Williams, 5ème garcon — Jack Lawrence-Jones.

Alexandre bis :

Philomène — Bianca Andrew, Le portrait — Milan Siljanov, Alexandre — Josep-Ramon Olivé, Armande — Elizabeth Karani, Oscar — John Findon, Dancing Devils — Robin Horgan, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Bertie Watson, Laurence Williams.

Director — Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor — Timothy Redmond, Set and lighting designer — Simon Corder, costume designer — Cordelia Chisholm, choreographer Victoria Newlyn, Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tuesday 31st May 2015, Silk Street Theatre, GSMD, London.

Click here for a podcast about this production.

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):