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

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

26 Mar 2019

The devil shares the good tunes: Chelsea Opera Group's Mefistofele

Every man ‘who burns with a thirst for knowledge and life and with curiosity about the nature of good and evil is Faust ... [everyone] who aspires to the Unknown, to the Ideal, is Faust’.

Boito’s Mefistofele: Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Vazgen Gazaryan (Mefistofele)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Arrigo Boito’s preface to his libretto for Mefistofele attests to the writer-composer’s own curiosity about the man who renounces a world, which nevertheless enthrals and ensnares him, as he trives to manipulate the cosmos and transcend human science and knowledge in search of a higher truth. Boito’s examples of Faustian figures include Adam, Solomon, Prometheus, Manfred and Don Quixote, and his own creations - Iago for Verdi’s Otello, Barnaba for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and Nerone for the opera which he laboured over for four decades but left unfinished at his death in 1918 - are evidence of his repeated revisiting of the conception of good and evil.

Opera companies in the UK have been more reluctant to revisit Boito’s own Mefistofele, however. Twenty years have passed since ROH’s 1998 semi-staged performance with Samuel Ramey taking the role of the eponymous fiend, and ENO’s production the following year in which Alastair Miles stepped into the devil’s shoes.

What accounts for this reluctance? The opera is intellectually and musically ambitious in range. Boito attempted to create an operatic embodiment of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama in its entirety, rather than, as Gounod essayed in his more famous version, just a part of the literary masterpiece. But, Boito’s first efforts met with derision: the opera in five acts framed by a prologue and epilogue which was premiered in Milan in 1868 was a failure and Boito subsequently made several revisions of the work, reducing it to four acts and excising episodes such as a scene at the Emperor’s court and an orchestral Battle Symphony. The terrain traversed is still expansive and diverse, however, encompassing a Frankfurt Square, Faust’s study, the garden of Margherita’s friend Marta, the Brocken valley in the rugged Harz mountains, a prison cell, the banks of the river Peneios - even the firmament itself. One imagines that the scene-changes required in a staged performance might result in an episodic quality.

Then, it’s probably fair to say that Boito’s creative talents were more literary than musical; indeed, some critics have accused Boito of having composed ‘a fabulously tasteless score [that] comes at you like a parody of every operatic cliché’. Moreover, a successful production requires four principal singers of considerable vocal heft and a chorus who can get negotiate tricky fugal challenges and get their tongues around some Italian patter. But, there are some glorious musical effects, terrific arias for the soloists, exciting choral writing and a strong narrative arc. As Chelsea Opera Group confirmed in this superb concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Mefistofele does not deserve its neglect.

That this was such a compelling account was in large part due to the sustained dramatic engagement and musical commitment of the entire cast, who through their superb vocal acting turned the alleged ‘clichés’ into tours de force.

Elizabeth Llewellyn Act 3.jpgElizabeth Llewellyn (Margherita/Elena). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

We don’t see enough of soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn on British stages. A few years ago, she was a familiar face at ENO (where she sang Mimì, Mozart’s Countess Countess , The Magic Flute’s First Lady and Micäela ), and at Opera Holland Park (Countess and Fiordiligi). But, apart from a return to OHP in 2017 to sing Puccini’s Magda de Civry , Llewellyn has found herself more frequently treading the boards of European opera houses - including at Theater Magdeburg and Royal Danish Opera - and made her US debut last year in Seattle’s Porgy and Bess . When I first heard Llewellyn sing, in ENO’s 2010 La boh ème, I admired her ‘warm, generous voice [which] easily reached the rafters of the Coliseum’, and the warmth and generosity of her lyric spinto have only blossomed more richly during the intervening years. She commanded the attention of all in the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the Act 3 prison scene, her soprano falling with a slight duskiness and rising with a rapturous sheen, the projection easy and the phrasing beguiling. If the drama of ‘L’altra notte’ was well-crafted, in the great love duet, ‘Lontano, lontano’, she spun an exquisite, gentle pianissimo; and, when she prayed to God for salvation and rejecting Faust, her dying phrases conveyed every drop of emotional intensity. The spontaneous applause that greeted ‘L’altra notte’ seemed to take Llewellyn a little by surprise, just as she had astonished those in the Hall with such powerful expressivity - an expressively which was equally captivating when she assumed the persona of Helen of Troy in the following Act.

Pablo Bemsch proved an equally impressive Faust. The Argentinian tenor has a lovely sweet sound, fresh and honest, one that is well-supported and consistent. The role is a long sing and Bemsch had the necessary stamina, if not always quite enough heft to top the COG Orchestra and Chorus in the more extravagant tutti outbursts: perhaps it was sensible not to attempt to do battle with the masses, but occasionally Bemsch’s middle- and lower-voice line seemed to slip away - particularly in Act 4 Scene 1 - into the ensemble texture. That said, this was a Faust with whom one could readily empathise. Bemsch communicated Faust’s ardour, yearning and obsessive curiosity, but also his dignity, and there was a strong sense of the passing of time and his growing distress in old age. This was a contemplative, at times introspective Faust, and Bemsch made his reveries ‘real’, particularly in ‘Giunto sul passo estremo’ when the older Faust’s dreams of universal serenity pulsed with elation.

With a dark glint in his eye, an unflinching stare, a mocking sneer twitching his lip and an authoritative physical poise, Armenian-German bass Vazgen Gazaryan was a captivating Mefistofele. He had no problem negotiating the devil’s rather faltering, repetitive melodic lines, firing the short phrases with power, pace and accuracy. Gazaryan’s firm, focused tone had a terrific ‘edge’, by turns dismissive and aggressive, and he demonstrate an assured rhythmic sense. This Mefistofele exuded unabashed conceit when challenging God in the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ but alongside brazen defiance, Gazaryan also suggested the fiend’s frustration. This was commanding dramatic singing, made more gripping by Gazaryan’s consummate knowledge of the role which he sang entirely off-score.

COG Chorus Boito.jpgChelsea Opera Group perform Mefistofele at the QEH. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Aaron Godfrey-Mayes displayed a bright tenor as Faust’s pupil Wagner and as Nereo in Act 4; Angharad Lyddon was similarly appealing as Marta and Pantalis. The ensembles were persuasively cohesive, and there was plenty of dramatic communication between the principals.

The COG Chorus were kept busy and proved themselves up to the challenges that Boito poses. The blazing vigour of the full choral sound was impressive, though the women were less confident than the men and occasionally less secure in intonation. There was assured and consistent playing, too, from the COG Orchestra. The brass and percussion relished the explosive writing in the Prelude and Epilogue, and woodwind solos and pairings sang with shapeliness. If the fiddles didn’t quite summon a luxuriant sheen, then the string tone was well-blended and the ensemble good, with the inner voices coming through strongly.

Matthew Scott Rogers displayed a good sense of the dramatic shape of the opera. Tempi were bracing but persuasive: only in the Sabbath episode did he seem to leave a few of the chorus and orchestra trailing in his wake! He whipped up musical storms with economical gesture and means. Perhaps a little more gradation of volume would have been welcome - when it was loud, it was loud - but overall the performance had a compelling sweep.

Chelsea Opera Group should be congratulated and thanked for showing us that Boito’s devil has some of the good tunes, but not all of them: there are copious melodic and dramatic riches in Mefistofele and it would be good to hear them again in the opera house soon.

Claire Seymour

Boito: Mefistofele

Mefistofele - Vazgen Gazaryan, Faust - Pablo Bemsch, Margherita/Elena - Elizabeth Llewellyn, Wagner/Nereo - Aaron Godfrey-Mayes, Marta/Pantalis - Angharad Lyddon; Conductor - Matthew Scott Rogers, Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra and Chorus.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London; Sunday 24th March 2019.

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):