Archive for the Opera Category
I’m taking some time off over Easter, in the hope that Spring will finally appear. In the meantime here’s the famous Intermezzo from the Opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. The conductor is the venerable Georges Prêtre, with the Orchestre National de France.Follow @telescoper
Time for a quick post about Saturday night at the Opera while I have my sandwich lunch. I have reviewed Lulu by Alban Berg before but David Pountney’s production for Welsh National Opera was quite different to the Covent Garden version I saw a few years ago.
Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful with a constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and disjointed. It’s easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, and there are whole sections that sound like they come from the soundtrack of a Hammer Horror film.
So what about the Opera itself? The plot revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty and working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is losing her looks, as a result of illness and ageing. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point her decline is inexorable and death inevitable. It’s also no coincidence that her murderer is played by the same actor who plays her first lover, Dr Schön.
This production looks very different to the Covent Garden production, but rather than describe it in words it’s probably easier to look at the promotional video made by WNO.
It’s a very vivid and imaginative staging based on a stark framework made of metal that dominates the stage. A particularly effective and disturbing idea is to have the corpses of Lulu’s ex-lovers winched up into this structure on meat hooks after they’re dead and left to dangle there for the rest of the performance. Although the principal element of the set remains in place throughout, changes of mood and location are represented with dramatic changes of lighting and colour; Victorian London is memorably evoked with fog and a plethora of raised umbrellas. It’s all quite different from how I would have imagined the piece, but none the worse for that.
Marie Arnet was an excellent Lulu, giving a delicately nuanced portrayal of a complex central character who is as manipulated as she is manipulating. She is in turns cold-hearted and vulnerable, seductive and exploited. She bares all in this production, first in Act II, and is again naked when she is killed at the end of Act III. Neither scene is done gratuitously. Although her death scene is very shocking and horrific, it is not done in a titillating way. The rest of the cast was very good too, and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under Lothar Koenigs played the extraordinary music with clarity and energy. The saxophones and vibraphone, included to lend a bit of jazz-age decadence to the piece, were very prominent.
Before seeing this production I saw that the first night got a rave review and five stars in the Guardian. I wasn’t sure what to make of that as I rarely agree with published reviews. In fact I agree with much of Andrew Clements said, but wouldn’t have given it five stars. I’d probably give it four, if I did stars…
In Berg’s score the singers are sometimes called upon to use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This can be extremely effective from a dramatic point of view when done well. In this production I was perturbed that the short pieces of the libretto intended to be performed in this way were in fact delivered by disembodied recorded voices. I thought that was peculiar when I first noticed it, and as it recurred throughout the performance it started to irritate me quite considerably. I couldn’t tell which character was meant to be speaking, and in any case the recorded voices sounded nothing like those of any of the characters on stage. This device was probably used because some of the parts were played by people in animal masks, but other than that I couldn’t see the point of it.
That was an unfortunate blot on an otherwise excellent production, but there was still much to enjoy and I’m very glad I went back to Cardiff to see it.Follow @telescoper
I went last night to Welsh National Opera’s new production of Lulu by Alban Berg; I’ll post a review in due course when I’ve got more time. Before I get the train back to Brighton I thought I’d post a quick comment on WNO’s recent “rebranding” exercise. This was described by Director David Pountney as follows:
WNO’s rebranding exercise is an integral part of its overall strategy to make itself as fit as possible to face the many challenges of the current environment. This includes a reinvigorated artistic programme, a rigorously tight management of our financial outgoings, and a positive search for alternative funding. The branding exercise is far more than creating a new logo. It has resulted from detailed consultations within and outside the company on its mission and its identity, and has resulted in a renewed image that will serve for the next decade. Central to this is of a re-designed website, together with a new style of programme book to reflect the company’s themed seasons. Together these form an integrated strategy to support the company’s prosperity and creative energy over the coming seasons.
One immediately obvious consequence of this rebranding is the demise of the very attractive and handy old programmes (such as the one for Tosca on the left), and their replacement by a much bigger season programme that covers in this case three different operas (Lulu, Madame Butterfly and The Cunning Little Vixen, bundled together incongruously under the theme of Free Spirits) . The new style programme is much heavier and larger so that it doesn’t fit in jacket pocket. It also means that if you just want to see one Opera in the season, and want to buy a programme for that one only, you can’t. Shades of the academic publishing industry. Any further visits of mine to WNO definitely won’t involve buying a programme..
Anyway, one thing the marketing types can’t bugger up with their rebranding nonsense is the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre, snapped here as I went to get a bite to eat after last night’s performance.Follow @telescoper
I thought I’d try out the WordPress app for my Blackberry by posting this old picture, taken in the Arena di Verona while we were waiting for the start of the sumptuous production of Verdi’s Aida on 30th July 2006. The Opera doesn’t start there until it gets dark, but the evening sun was glinting on the gold pyramid sitting in the centre of the stage, so I couldn’t resist getting a picture. The late start meant we enjoyed a nice dinner before the performance, along with a very nice bottle of Amarone…Follow @telescoper
Just time for a quickie today. I seem to be writing that virtualy every day at this time, in fact. Anyway, yesterday I gave the last of a series of lectures on Fluid Dynamics during which I talked a little bit about the Navier-Stokes equation, and introduced the concept of turbulence, topic that Richard Feynman described as “the most important unsolved problem in classical physics”. Given that the origin of turbulence is so poorly understood, I had to cover it all fairly qualitatively but did at least explain that its onset is associated with high values of the Reynold’s Number, an interesting dimensionless number that characterizes the properties of viscous fluid flow in such a way as to bring out the dynamical similarity inherent in the equations. The difficulty is that there is no exact theory that allows one to calculate the critical value of the Reynold’s number and in any particular situation; that has to be determined by experiments, such as this one which shows turbulent vortices (or “eddies”) forming downstream of a cylindrical obstacle placed in flowing fluid. The (laminar) flow upstream, and in regions far from the cylinder, has no vorticity.
What happens is obviously extremely complicated because it involves a huge range of physical scales – the vorticity is generated by very small-scale interactions between the fluid elements and the boundary of the object past which they flow. It’s a very frustrating thing for a physicist, actually, because one’s gut feeling is that it should be possible to figure it out. After all, it’s “just” classical physics. It’s also of great practical importance in a huge range of fields. Nevertheless, despite all the progress in “exotic” field such as particle physics and cosmology, it remains an open question in many respects.
That’s why it’s important to teach undergraduates about it. Physics isn’t just about solved problems. It’s a living subject, and it’s important for students to know those fields where we don’t really know that much about what is going on…
PS. The title is a quotation from the libretto of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, uttered by the eponymous Count as he is dragged down to hell. It translates as “Whence come these vortices?” Pretentious, moi?Follow @telescoper
I heard this piece of music on Radio 3 earlier today and it completely blew me away. I must get the DVD of the 2011 performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare from which it was taken, but in the meantime here’s a clip from Youtube to give you an idea. This is the marvellous Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra singing the da capo aria Se pieta di me non senti. It’s a truly sublime and moving performance from a singer at the very peak of her prowess. Brava!Follow @telescoper
I took time out from a busy week yesterday evening for a performance by Welsh National Opera of Jephtha by George Frideric Handel. Based on a biblical story (from the Book of Judges), Jephtha was written late in Handel’s life (indeed it was the last major work Handel wrote) as an oratorio rather than an opera, and was first performed as such in 1752.
Last night’s production brought movement, scenery and costumes to Handel’s lovely music in an attempt to turn it into an opera. It was only partially successful in doing that. Owing to the nature of the piece, it appeared as a series of rather static tableaux rather than a compelling music drama. It did however, feature excellent music and singing, and very imaginative use of a rather simple set, an interior of faded and battered opulence, complete with broken plaster and bullet holes, and costumes that evoke the period leading up to World War II.
You can get a good idea of the look of the performance in the following WNO trailer:
The story revolves around the character Jephtha who is called upon to lead the people of Gilead in battle against Ammon. He takes up the challenge, and when he proves victorious he rashly (and cruelly) vows to make a sacrifice of the first human being to greet him when he returns home. That turns out to be his daughter, Iphis. Will he carry out his pledge and turn Iphis into a burnt offering? Will an Angel of the Lord intervene and spare her? I won’t spoil the plot, except that that the operatorio does not end in the same way as the bible story seems to…
As for the singers, I thought Fflur Wyn (Iphis) was the pick – her voice beautifully conveyed the innocence and fragility of the young daughter. Robin Blaze as Hamor (Iphis’ betrothed) was also excellent in the counter-tenor role. I wasn’t so keen on Robert Murray as Jephtha, whose voice was rather thin and undistinguished especially early on in the performance. But it was really Handel’s music that took centre stage. Although the performance contained much to savour, I’m not convinced that staging Jephtha as an opera was really worth it. I would probably have enjoyed it just as much if it had been performed as an oratorio, like Messiah.Follow @telescoper
Time rolls on and the end of the summer brings the beginning of the new Opera season in Cardiff, with La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini at Welsh National Opera. It seems like a thousand years since I last went to the Wales Millennium Centre but it was only May. Still, a lot has happened between then and now. It felt good to see the Wales Millennium Centre again, looking resplendent in the sunshine of a September evening. Life’s getting back to normal.
I confess that I still get butterflies in my stomach as I take my seat before a night at the Opera. I guess if that thrill ever disappears I’ll just stop going, but last night reminded me why I love the Opera so much. The performance was absolutely wonderful, perhaps the best I’ve seen at Cardiff since I moved here five years ago.
I suppose the story of La Bohème will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Opera, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway. It’s a boy-meets-girl love story, of course. The boy in this case is the poet Rodolfo (Alex Vicens) and the girl, actually named Lucia but known as Mimi (Giselle Allen). The setting is Paris around 1830, and the poet and his painter friend Marcello (David Kempster) are starving and freezing, as it is winter and they have no money. Act I is set on Christmas Eve, but the two friends have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. Fortunately, their musician friend Schaunard (Daniel Grice) turns up with money and provisions. After various comings and goings everyone but Rodolfo leaves to spend Christmas Eve out on the town; Rodolfo has to finish a piece for a journal, and promises to join them when he is done. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mimi, who lives nearby and whose candle has gone out. It’s love at first sight…
The later stages of Act I are built around Rodolfo’s aria Che Gelida Manina (“your tiny hand is frozen”) and Mimi’s Mi Chiamano Mimi. These beautiful songs follow one another in quick succession, and are then rounded off with a wonderful duet O Soave Fanciulla in a manner guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. And, before you ask, yes I did cry. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone noticed.
But it’s not just the ravishing music that makes this passage so special, it’s also Puccini’s gift as a story-teller: after the two arias by Rodolfo and Mimi, the audience knows everything they need to know about these characters. It’s a great example of why I think Puccini is a far greater writer of Opera than, say, Wagner. Puccini understood much better than Wagner how to vary pace and colour without allowing the story to bogged down, and he knew exactly how to use his big tunes to maximum dramatic effect (i.e. without excessive repetition). In fact, La Bohème is in four acts, but its running time is just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, packed full of gorgeous music and compelling drama. It’s a supreme example of Puccini’s artistry as a composer of Opera.
Anyway, back to the plot. Act II finds Rodolfo and Mimi joining in the party started by Marcello and his buddies. There’s a huge contrast here between the dingy garret in which Act I is set, as this is set in the Latin Quarter of gay Paris (with a few drag queens in this production thrown in to make the point). Marcello gets off with the object of his desire, the coquettish Musetta (Kate Valentine), and all seems well with the world as we go into the interval.
In Act III we find things have changed. Rodolfo’s love for Mimi has soured and, overcome by jealousy and suspicion, he has left her. Clearly unwell, Mimi wanders around looking for Rodolfo and he hears her coughing. They clearly still love each other, but find it difficult to live with each other. If Opera were Facebook they would both have “It’s complicated” on their status.
The last act finds us back in the garret, Rodolfo and Mimi having separated. But Mimi has been wandering the streets in the freezing cold and turns up, clearly gravely ill. Rodolfo’s friends quickly pawn some meagre possessions and Marcello and Musetta rush out to buy medicine and summon a doctor. They return with the medicine but, before the doctor arrives, Mimi dies.
Well, what did you expect in an Opera, a happy ending?
People say that this is a romantic opera but it’s a pretty bleak story when you think about it. The lovers’ happiness is brief and it all ends in despair and death in surroundings of poverty and squalor. That’s what Opera Verismo is all about.
I don’t give star ratings when I review Opera performances, but if I did this would get the highest grade. All the principals were marvellous. It was refreshing to see Rodolfo played by a tenor who not only looked the part (i.e. youthful and dashing rather than middle-aged and portly) but could also cope with the demands of the role. I thought Alex Vicens’ voice sounded a little thin at the start and was worried that he might have to force it during the big arias, but he warmed up magnificently. Kate Valentine was a very sexy Musetta. The other person who deserves a particular mention is Welsh baritone David Kempster, who was absolutely superb as Marcello. His compelling stage presence matched by an exceptionally fine voice. World class, I’d say…
And a word for the production. Annabel Arden’s design managed to bring fresh elements to what is basically a straightforward interpretation of the Opera. The visual effects, such as the animated snow, were clever but not intrusive. There was no attempt to translate the action into a different period or location nor was there an attempt to preach about disease as a metaphor for moral failings. In this respect it’s very faithful to what I think Puccini’s intentions were, i.e. to let the audience make their own mind up about what message they want to take away. The only slight departure I spotted was that in Act I Mimi actually blows her own candle out deliberately in order to get Rodolfo to light it again. Methinks she’s a bit more forward than usual in this production.
By way of a postscript I couldn’t resist posting this, which I found on Youtube this morning. It’s a vintage recording of O Soave Fanciulla dating back to 1956 and featuring the great Jussi Björling as Rodolfo. He may be a bit old for the part, but listen to that voice! The greatest tenor of his generation, without question. And Renata Tebaldi as Mimi too…Follow @telescoper
Well, summer must be nearly over. Tonight is the Last Night of the
Pimms Proms. More importantly, it’s the first night of the new season at Welsh National Opera, which I’ll be attending. Of which more anon. However, I thought I’d warm up by posting this marvellous clip which looks behind the scenes at a famous recording of the rarely performed English version of the classic aria Dovrei essere così fortunato from the Opera Una Ragazza Australiana con le Natiche Belle conducted by Carl Davis. Enjoy.