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 Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

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.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

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).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

ROH’s <em>The Return of Ulysses</em> at the Roundhouse
12 Jan 2018

ROH Return to the Roundhouse

Opera transcends time and place. An anonymous letter, printed with the libretto of Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia and written two years before his death, assures the reader that Monteverdi’s music will continue to affect and entrance future generations:

ROH’s The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse

A review by Claire Seymour

Above:Production image of The Return of Ulysses

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

‘Enjoy the music of the never-enough-praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others ... [which] will be sighed for in future ages at least as far as they can be consoled by his most noble compositions, which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time.’ [1]

Prophetic words. And, they were confirmed at the Camden Roundhouse where the Royal Opera House and the Early Opera Company joined forces to present, in a new English translation by Christopher Cowell, Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses.

It is music, as Monteverdi’s operatic dramas themselves argue and illustrate, that speaks across generations and epochs. The words of afore-mentioned author - ‘Monteverdi was born into the world to control the feelings of others, there being no soul hard enough that he could not turn and move it with his talent’, both singer and listener being ‘carried away by the variety and strength of the same disruptive emotions’ - seem as applicable now as in Monteverdi’s day. It seems to me, then, that there is no need to find contextual or narrative parallels to emphasise or establish the link between past and present. Homer’s poem communicates the grief of absence and the joy of reunion, emotions with which all humanity can empathise.

Ulysses production image Stephen Cummiskey.jpgProduction image. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Director John Fulljames evidently thought differently. As well as excising the gods and goddesses - and thereby eliminating some of the more effusive lyrical moments in the score - he decided that ‘the question of living with the legacy of war feels as if it’s the story of the 21st century’, and that references to modern-day conflicts were in order: so, the community choir became Syrian refugees receiving food parcels from the aid-worker Penelope, and costumes juxtaposed buxom bronze breast-plates with gold Doc Martens, and spangly space blankets with combat fatigues. But, Ulysses is not ‘about’ refugees: the drama is impelled by a ‘home-coming’ which, in the opera’s final duet of reunited love confirms the power of music itself. And, Fulljames neglect of this inexorable progress towards inevitable resolution was problematic.

Tai Oney .jpg Tai Oney (as Peisander) with the community chorus. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

As Ellen Rosand points out, each of the (original) five acts ‘culminates with an action that marks a successive step in Ulisse’s journey homeward: Act I ends with his rejoicing at his arrival in Ithaca, Act II with his reunion with Telemaco, Act III with his vow to slay the Suitors, Act IV with his defeat of the Suitors, and Act V with his reunion with Penelope’. [2] But, in this production, while no-one, not even the instrumentalists, was ever ‘still’, there was no sense of anyone actually going anywhere.

Roderick Williams as Ulysseus © ROH & Roundhouse. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.jpg Ulysses (Roderick Williams). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

When the ROH so successfully staged Orfeo at the Roundhouse in 2015 , Michael Boyd’s production was characterised by bold, dramatic movement, exploiting the possibilities of the venue and capturing the vivacity of Monteverdi’s strings of canzonetti and balletti through the gestures of contemporary dance and show-ground acrobatics. Here, all involved were confined to a central ring, which the singers circled as the ring itself revolved, and into the ‘hole’ of which the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company nestled, while they too rotated.

This incessant circling exacerbated the difficulty, posed by the dimensions and nature of the venue, of creating sustained dramatic engagement between the protagonists and consistent ‘connection’ between cast and audience. As they orbited the musicians, in order to communicate with all ‘corners’ of the Roundhouse singers frequently turned away from each other, disrupting dramatic relationships. Moreover, the amplification that was so subtly and effectively employed in Orfeo in 2015 was less successfully managed here; voices seemed to ebb and flow, again making it difficult, for this listener at least to concentrate, and to discern sustained dramatic and emotional expression (though, the surtitles aloft - yet another ring - were helpful).

The performance was not aided by the unfortunate indisposition of Christine Rice. Rice mimed and mouthed the role of Penelope while Caitlin Hulcup - who, we were informed, had learned the role in a single weekend - stood among the instrumentalists in the doughnut-hole. Hulcup sang with refinement and nuance; but, inevitably and unavoidably, the engagement between the other characters and Penelope was lessened, as they sought to encourage her to cast off her obduracy and anger.

Moreover, while the musicians of the Early Opera Group played for conductor Christian Curnyn with customary stylistic elegance, the musical score was unusually monotone of mood and detached from the dramatic unfolding. While there is a stylistic gulf between the Mantuan Orfeo and the late Venetian operas, Ulysses is still characteristically Monteverdian in its juxtaposition of swiftly shifting emotions and affections, from pathos to passion, despair to delight; but here rhythmic impetus and variety often felt lacking. I barely registered the vivid sinfonia di guerra with its prickly concitato incisiveness. The libretto bears the generic description ‘tragedia ’ but this attests more to the contemporary classicising aesthetic than to a prevailing gloom, and I missed the alleviating heightening of lyricism that occurs in Ulysses’ own vocal expansions, or the dramatic tension which tightens the screw during the testing of the suitors, or the lascivious fun and flippancy of the exchanges between Melantho and Eurymachus.

Ulysses - Williams .jpg Ulysses (Roderick Williams). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Pushing such misgivings aside, though, there is no doubting the eloquence, both vocal and expressive, of Roderick Williams’ account of Ulysses’ trials. Williams sang beautifully: the gentleness of his baritone and the sensitivity of his phrasing and dynamics seem custom-made for Monteverdi’s tender, affecting arioso. But, while it was not entirely Williams’ fault, given that he seemed to have been encouraged to sing much of the role while lying on the floor, one might have found the characterisation rather monochrome: this was a Ulysses in torment, but where was the joy and laughter of ‘Rido, ne so perche’, the bristling bravery of the battle cries or the passionate consummation of the final love duet?

Melantho and Eurymachus.jpg Melantho (Francesca Chiejina) and Eurymachus (Andrew Tortise). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

The ROH has assembled a strong cast and they without exception impressed. Jette Parker Young Artist Francesca Chiejina was a vibrant, vocally lithe Melantho - how did Penelope resist her servant’s seductive exhortations to love? - and she was joined by Andrew Tortise’s Eurymachus in a beguiling love duet (which is long, but in this context felt all too brief). Mark Milhofer enjoyed the swineherd Eumete’s lyrical invocation to Nature, and Susan Bickley provided concentrated emotional focus in the minor role of Eurycleia. Catherine Carby, bashed about in brazen boots, and was a bubbly, plump-voiced Minerva. As the suitors, Nick Pritchard (Amphinomus), Tai Oney (Peisander) and David Shipley (Antinous) were vocally faultless but struggled to make a dramatic impact.

Stuart Jackson was dressed in an ugly fat-suit and bald pate, but his Iro was, ironically, handsomely mellifluous: indeed, one might question whether Jackson’s characteristic vocal elegance and beauty were quite the right channel for a character who lacks all pastoral grace as he repeats and spits musical and verbal motifs? Jackson’s trills were crisp and stylish, but did not conjure a demonic laughter that is a sign of imminent lunacy and eventual, shocking, suicide. There is more depth and range of emotions to this ‘comic’ role than Jackson perhaps intimated, however beautifully he sang.

It was a pity that so much splendid singing was rather let down by a production which span on the spot and lost its way. Monteverdi’s drama is driven by the ever-decreasing distance between its two protagonists, but in this production the distances between characters seemed to grow not diminish. By the close, like Ulysses lost on the high seas for ten years, they all seemed rather adrift.

Claire Seymour

Claudio Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Ulysses/Human Frailty - Roderick Williams, Penelope - Christine Rice and Caitlin Hulcup, Telemachus - Samuel Boden, Minerva/Fortune - Catherine Carby, Eurycleia - Susan Bickley, Melantho/Love - Francesca Chiejina, Eurymachus - Andrew Tortise, Eumaeus - Mark Milhofer, Irus - Stuart Jackson, Amphinomus - Nick Pritchard, Peisander - Tai Oney, Antinous/Time - David Shipley; Director - John Fulljames, Conductor - Christian Curnyn, Set designer - Hyemi Shin, Costume designer - Kimie Nakano, Lighting designer - Paule Constable, Sound design - Ian Deardon for Sound Intermedia, Movement director - Maxine Braham, Translator - Christopher Cowell, The Return of Ulysses Community Ensemble, Thurrock Community Chorus, Orchestra of the Early Opera Company.

Roundhouse, London; Wednesday 10th January, 2018.



[1] See Anthony Pryer’s ‘Approaching Monteverdi: his cultures and ours’, in The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi. The author/librettist has recently been identified as Michelangelo Torcigliani, friend of the librettist of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Giacomo Badoaro.

[2] Ellen Rosand, ‘Monteverdi’s late operas’, in Ibid.

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):