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

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

Lise Davidsen: A superlative journey through the art of song

Are critics capable of humility? The answer should always be yes, yet I’m often surprised how rare it seems to be. It took the film critic of The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell, several decades to admit she had been wrong about Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a film excoriated on its release in 1960. It’s taken me considerably less time - and largely because of this astounding recital - to realise I was very wrong about Lise Davidsen.

Parsifal in Toulouse

Aurélien Bory, director of a small, avant garde theater company in Toulouse, staged a spellbinding Parsifal at the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse’s famed Orchestre National du Capitole in the pit — FYI the Capitole is Toulouse’s city hall, the opera house is a part of it.

An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

‘The world’s most acclaimed Soprano’: the programme booklet produced for Ermonela Jaho’s Wigmore Hall debut was keen to emphasise the Albanian soprano’s prestigious status, as judged by The Economist, and it was standing-room only at the Hall which was full to capacity with Jaho’s fervent fans and opera-lovers.

Parsifal in Palermo

Richard Wagner chose to finish his Good Friday opera while residing in Sicily’s Palermo, partaking of the natural splendors of its famed verdant basin, the Conca d’Oro, and reveling in the golden light of its surreal Monreale cathedral.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts a magnificent Siegfried

“Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation.” This was Richard Wagner, writing in 1854, his thoughts on Siegfried. The hero of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, has quite some journey to travel before he gets to the vision the composer described in that letter to August Roeckel. Watching Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried in this - largely magnificent - concert performance one really wondered how tortuous a journey this would be.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Rome

Shakespearean sentiments may gracefully enrich Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet, but powerful Baroque tensions enthrall us in the bel canto complexities of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Conductor Daniele Gatti’s offered a truly fine bel canto evening at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera introducing a trio of fine young artists.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali has been making waves internationally for some time. The chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is set to take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021.

Tristan und Isolde in Bologna

East German stage director Ralf Pleger promised us a Tristan unlike anything we had ever seen. It was indeed. And Slovakian conductor Jura Valčuha gave us a Tristan as never before heard. All of this just now in the most Wagnerian of all Italian cities — Bologna!


Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague

What does it feel like to be depressed? “It’s like water seeping into my heart” is how one young sufferer put it.

Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project

Puccini’s only comedy, the one act Gianni Schicchi is most often programmed with a second short piece of tragic fare, but the adventurous Pacific Opera Project has banked on a fanciful Ravel opus to sustain the mood and send the audience home with tickled ribs and gladdened hearts.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

A scene from Perséphone: mélodrame  [Photo © Brandon Patoc]
01 May 2018

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.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

A review by Roger Downey

A scene from Perséphone: mélodrame

Photos © Brandon Patoc

 

The very oddity of that list makes it clear why Rubenstein’s heritage is so ill-defined almost 60 years after her death. Everybody knows Boléro (though some blanch at the idea of ever hearing it again); but hardly anybody knows the other vehicles Rubenstein’s commissioning cash created to judge if they’re evidence of anything beyond the dancing diseuse’s Promethean vanity.

Such is Stravinsky’s prestige in our time that had he set Perséphone for two actors, one dancer, and seven musical instruments as he did The Soldier’s Tale, we might know it at least as well as we do that towering masterpiece. But thanks to all that money, he wrote it for a stageful of performers (including an obbligato boy’s choir) and the largest orchestra he ever employed after The Rite of Spring.

bpatoc_sso_persephone_press_preview_0005.pngFull stage

In consequence, Perséphone has ended up on the shelf of pieces that intrigue serious musicians while putting orchestra managers and marketing directors to panicked flight. Performances without star names attached (Balanchine in 1982 New York, Peter Sellers in 2012 Madrid, Thomas Adès and Kirsten Scott-Thomas in 2018 London) have been few indeed.

The more praise to the Oregon and Seattle Symphony Orchestras to take up puppeteer Michael Curry’s visionary proposal for a full staging of the work, and providing the immense resources to do it justice (though Curry’s credits working with puppet-queen Julie Taymor on Disney’s Broadway Lion King, not to mention the Metropolitan Opera and Cirque du Soleil, probably helped a good deal in putting the deal across.)

The depth and seriousness of the staging seen at Benaroya Hall on April 26 goes far beyond the visible. In narrator role of Eumolpus we had Kenneth Tarver, la clarion voiced tenor who starred at Paris’ Opéra Comique in the title role in Auber’s Fra Diavolo. As Perséphone herself (doubled and tripled, by a dancer and a marionette) we had French actress Pauline Cheviller, reprising a role she played in the 2012 revival of Peter Sellars’ Madrid staging, with tenor Paul Groves as her Eumolpus).

With all this going for it, the SSO’s mounting fell well short of perfection. Part of the problem was the evening’s overall program.

It began with a three-minute version of the Song of the Volga Boatmen: Stravinsky arrangement or not, it seemed as out of place as his Circus Polka, commissioned by the Ringling Brothers to accompany their elephant act.

bpatoc_sso_persephone_press_preview_0011.pngTwo Persephones

The concerto for piano and winds which followed was brilliantly played by virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin (raggedly accompanied by a clearly underrehearsed band of gallantly willing wind players). As if to emphasize the extravagance of the evening, the first half of the evening ended with the delirious hammering of four grand pianos and 10 wildly chanting Russian voices (the Pokrovsky Ensemble, in fine rowdy form) in the 1923 ballet version of the cantata variously known as Svad’ba/Les noces/The Wedding). Too much, very too much, with Hamelin on first piano, a human cherry on the whole towering sundae.

One inadvertent downside of the musical buffet was that throughout the long first half, we had to look at Mr. Curry’s stage-frame for Perséphone (Being a dedicated concert hall, the Mark Taper auditorium has no wing or fly space for scenery storage).

The longer looked at, the less appropriate it began to seem as a reflection of the work to come. André Gide’s libretto portrays a stylized flowery landscape of spring from which the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter is drawn by pity for the dead to the chilly halls of Hell.

In this staging, hell was already more than halfway here. Instead of the meadow flowers of spring, “caressed by a vagabond breeze,” we’ve been looking for more than an hour at the tangled roots of two leafless trees, their gnarled trunks forming a dark oval in which now rises a pale and chilly moon.

The sun never does rise on this world; and as for flowers, what we get when they do appear are giant, lurid fleurs du mal. Mr. Curry’s marionettes are never less than striking: wispy sheets of ghosts, a crippled deer, the puppet Persephone, eerily human and inert at the same time. But with a large human chorus competing for space with them, they don’t have a lot of scope for action. (At one point, puppet-Persephone seems to be trying to escape the frame and into the reed section of the orchestra .)

Mme. Cheviller is a striking figure as Persephone, statuesque without stiffness, moving with grace. Her unamplified voice reached (barely) to the back of the last balcony, and, thanks to the terse supertitles adapted from poet J.D. McClatchy’s translation, a good deal of Gide’s watery sunshine/moonshine verse comes through despite the general dimness of the visual imagery.

The true magic in this performance, for me at least, was the revelation that Perséphone is not just an awkward experiment, an interesting but anomalous novelty in the career of the man who seems more and more “the composer of the 20th century.” The score is surely the least spiky, glittery original music Stravinsky ever wrote: in his oeuvre the only comparable work is his posthumous collaboration with Tschaikovsky on The Fairy’s Kiss (another Rubenstein commission). Instead it recalls the most abstract, most evanescent works of Debussy: the piano preludes, the veiled subtle sounds of his tennis-court ballet Jeux.

It’s curious coincidence that this season in Seattle, we have seen two daring head-on encounters with works on the fringes of the musical repertory: Berlioz’s opéra comique Béatrice et Bénédict at Seattle Opera and now Perséphone at the Seattle Symphony. Neithe rof them a complete success artistically (though both well-received by the city’s increasingly sophisticated audience), both illuminated the works in question, showing, even when falling short of solving the indubitable problems they present, suggestions of how they might be solved by other equally dedicated artists in future.

For Perséphone, I credit above all the playing of the Seattle Symphony musicians under their conductor of eight years Ludovic Morlot. Working together year after year on repertory reflecting Morlot’s Gallic training and tastes, he has polished his orchestra into an exemplary ensemble, with a sound distinctly its own: not French in sonority, but in clarity, taste . . . ésprit.

I have listened to Perséphone off and on for decades, always performed by first-rate forces; but always too always with conscious effort and little pleasure.

Now, having seen it as well, supporting and supported by in its dramatic context, I feel I have at last captured been touched by the spirit of the work: and despite my strictures of the production, I owe to Mr. Curry and his performers my conviction that, approached on its own terms, may one day stage take the stage proudly on its own.

Roger Downey

Perséphone: mélodrame in three acts to a libretto by André Gide

Cast and production information:

Pauline Cheviller (narrator); Kenneth Tarver (Eumolpus); Lauren McRory (Demeter); marionettes, design, and stage direction: Michael Curry; the Northwest Boychoir, Joseph Crnko, director; Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: Ludovic Morlot, conductor

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):