Archive for the Opera Category

Dialogues des Carmélites

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t usually blog about Opera unless it’s to do with a performance I’ve actually attended in person, but I couldn’t resist posting something about the live broadcast from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden of Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc that I heard last night on BBC Radio 3.

I’m basically a complete ignoramus when it comes to the music of Poulenc. With the exception of a few small chamber pieces of his that I’ve heard (and very much liked) I don’t know much about him as a composer at all. Last night’s performance however has inspired me to rectify that omission. To that end I’d be grateful of any recommendations through the comments box.

Anyway, back to Dialogues des Carmélites. This is based on the true story of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. Not knowing what to expect I was completely stunned by the music, much more melodic than I had expected, and beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. There are so many references to other composers in this piece that my head was spinning, but the strongest influence I could hear was Giacomo Puccini. Indeed, at times it sounded more like Puccini than Puccini ever did! I was gripped by the whole performance, but the ending, with the nuns singing the Salve Regina as they walk one by one to the scaffold, the dread sound of the guillotine repeatedly falling was utterly horrific and utterly compelling. In fact it was such a powerful experience I was trembling at the finish. Perhaps the fact that it was an audio broadcast only made it even more intense, precisely because so much was left to the imagination. It wasn’t exactly easy listening, but as a piece of music drama it was a triumph.

The entire performance is available for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer in High Definition sound via this link. If you make time to listen to it, I promise you won’t regret it – although the ending might give you nightmares!

Another thing worth mentioning was that this was the largest cast ever to appear on the stage of the Royal Opera House; no less than 167 people altogether. Among those involved were members of Streetwise Opera, a charitable organization quite new to me, which uses music to help homeless people make positive changes in their lives. This is such a brilliant idea that I sent a donation to support their work. I urge you to do likewise.

Moses und Aron

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by telescoper

Last night I found myself once again in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, the bank holiday weekend giving me enough breathing space to head back to Wales for a short break and take in an Opera.

As it turned out there was a rare treat on the menu: the first night of a new Welsh National Opera production of Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg. It was well worth the trip from Brighton.

Schoenberg had only completed two of the three acts by the time of his death in 1951 so the Opera is unfinished. On the other hand the Biblical story of the Exodus is so familiar that it doesn’t matter too much that some is missing. But although the plot is well known the Opera gives it several new dimensions.

Moses is chosen by God to lead his people from captivity but he is deeply troubled by the difficulty of this task because of his old age and the ‘clumsiness of his tongue’. Moses’ brother Aron has a much easier way with words (and pictures) so they join forces and lead the Jews from captivity into the wilderness.

Moses has deep reservations about Aron’s freedom with the use of images and other gimmicks, with good reason. In Act 2 while Moses is away receiving the Ten Commandments and whatnot, leaving Aron in charge, Aron permits all kind of lewd and ungodly behaviour, all starting with his use of images to depict God. Upon Moses’ return all that comes to an end, but it has exposed an irreconcilable disagreement between the two brothers about what if anything of the divine can ever be expressed in words. Moses’ concept of God is absolute and unknowable, requiring faith rather than understanding; Aron is content to use the Method of Images.

I’m not qualified to go into the theology behind all this, but it did have some resonance with me as a scientist. How much of the truth of creation do we capture with our words and equations, or are they just images?

Anyway, back to the Opera. The staging was modern, Act I was a lecture room or conference centre. Moses appeared as an ageing professor and Aron as a sort of Teaching Assistant. The Israelites were depicted as rowdy and occasionally violent students. The set changed slightly in Act 2 to resemble a movie theatre, implying that Aron’s images were cinematic, presumably violent and pornographic.

Moses was played by the legendary Sir John Tomlinson. His deeply sonorous voice and compelling stage presence provided a perfect focus for the production. Aron was Mark Le Brocq, whose fine performance was all the more remarkable because he was understudy for Rainer Trost who was unwell; to pick up such a challenging part at a few hours’ notice can not be easy and he did wonderfully well. As always, the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were also excellent.

Schoenberg’s music for Moses un Aron is resolutely serialist, which will no doubt put some people off. I found it gripping and starkly beautiful, performed with consummate artistry by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs.

All in all, yet another wonderful evening of music drama courtesy of WNO. Only two performances of Moses und Aron were planned for Cardiff this season; the other is next Friday (30th May). I’m glad that the Wales Millennium Centre was nearly full, as I hope WNO will continue putting on rare and challenging music like this. Unfortunately it seems the Arts Council have other ideas, and have just cut their grant to WNO. Fewer new productions and more revivals are in store from now on.

Victor Borge at the Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on November 20, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today as I’ve got a lot to do before this afternoon’s meeting of Senate. It’s such a cold and miserable day I thought it would be an idea to post this which I bookmarked some time ago but have never got round to posting. If you enjoy it half as much as I did then I enjoyed it twice as much as you…

Elektra

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2013 by telescoper

I seem to have spent more time in London than in Brighton over the last week, and on Saturday I was in the Big Smoke again, for a Night at the Opera. This was a trip I’ve been looking forward to for some time, because it was made possible by the good folks of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University: when I left at the end of January this year they presented me with a gift voucher for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which I’ve only just around to using. So before going on, let me take the opportunity express my gratitude for such a lovely gift!

The Opera I went to see was Elektra by Richard Strauss, in a revival of Charles Edwards’s production that first ran in 2003. Elektra is a complex story (geddit?) set in ancient Mycenae, whose ruling class is gripped by a terrible family feud. The Opera begins with Elektra deranged with grief because of the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra. She resolves to take revenge on her mother and her allies. Her hopes are initially thwarted when her sister Chrysothemis refuses to help and she hears of the death of her brother Orestes. However, Orestes is not dead; he returns to the Palace and, together with a companion, goes on a bloody rampage. The final scenes see the stage covered with dead bodies and the murderers drenched in blood. Elektra rejoices that her revenge is complete, but the fulfilment of her goal leaves her with nothing left to live for; the collapses and dies.

That’s what you go to the Opera for, a happy ending!

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Elektra is an opera in one Act, so it runs for about two hours without an interval. Christine Goerke was absolutely outstanding as Elektra, as was Iain Paterson as Orestes. The music by Richard Strauss is full of contrasts: at times dark and brooding, but at others with a radiant beauty. Those extremes represent the psychological extremes of the story: Elektra’s obsession with revenge is a distorted reflection of her love for her father. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Christopher Willis, standing in for Andris Jansons who was ill, added excellent colour and dynamics to the action on stage.

With all the corpses coming back to life in bloodstained costumes, the curtain call looked the Zombie Apocalypse had started, but we managed to escape and made it to an excellent Italian restaurant in time for a splendid supper followed by too much grappa. I didn’t get back to Brighton until late this afternoon…

Anna Bolena at WNO

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , , on September 9, 2013 by telescoper

It was the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, but I was otherwise engaged at the First Night of the new production by Welsh National Opera of Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. This is one of three famous Donizetti operas set in the Tudor period (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which I was slightly surprised to learn are collectively often described as the “Three Donizetti Queens”; I’m not sure what this implies about the erstwhile Earl of Essex. Anyway, as a fan of Italian bel canto I decided I just had to go to see Anna Bolena in Cardiff, even though it meant a trek back to Brighton yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the other two Queens in due course.

Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s imagining of the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so it’s basically the dark story of a young woman trapped in a web of intrigue and betrayal, a story made all the darker by the fact that it is based on real events. I wonder if such a plot would have ever have been considered plausible if it hadn’t actually happened?

The opera begins with Anna already having lost favour with her husband Enrico (Henry VIII), who is intent on ditching her in favour of  Jane (Giovanna) Seymour (who would shortly become Wife Number Three), but he first has to find a pretext to have her got rid of. Enrico lays a trap involving her brother, George Boleyn (the Lord Rocheford), the young musician Smeaton and Anna’s ex, Lord Percy, into which they and Anna duly fall. The hapless Smeaton confesses to having had an affair with Anna in the mistaken belief that she would be spared if he did so. Unfortunately, this amounts to an admission of treason. Despite Jane Seymour’s plea to Enrico to spare Anna’s life, she is condemned to die. The opera ends with all four people implicated in the plot walking off the stage to face execution, reconciled to their fate.

Of course the story is familiar from school history lessons, but what is especially compelling about it how it is told in this context is how the opera draws the audience into the character and innermost thoughs of the protagonists. For examples, Anna is more complex than you might imagine. It is true that she is naive, and out of her depth in a court so filled with plots and snares, but she is also at the same time ambitious and determined. Anna’s relationship with her rival Jane Seymour is also subtly nuanced, their deep fondness for each other demonstrated in a truly wonderful duet between soprano (Anna) and mezzo (Giovanna). The only real weak spot as far as characterization goes is Enrico, who comes across as little more than a pantomime villain (even to the extent that he received humorous boos on his curtain call). Of course Henry’s behaviour was tyrannical, but the drama would have worked more convincingly if there were at least something about him (other than his crown) that made Anna and Giovanna both adore him so much..

In typical bel canto style the voices of the singers are often extremely exposed, with the orchestra taking a back seat to a succession of dazzling coloratura passages with very little doubling of the vocal line to act as a safety net. At times, Donizetti’s music is little more than a basic backing track, but there is gorgeous orchestral writing in there too where the drama requires it. And that’s the point. Bel canto is not and never has been just about beautiful singing; the great operas in this genre also have great dramatic power and emotional intensity.

Serena Farnocchia’s Anna Bolena (soprano) was ably matched in beauty and clarity of voice by Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour (mezzo soprano). Faith Sherman (contralto) sang the part of the boy Smeaton with great sensitivity. Alastair Miles was also pretty good as Enrico, but I think the role suits someone with a more powerful bass voice. Robert McPherson as Lord Percy sang accurately enough but his lightish tenor voice has a rather nasal edge to it which took me quite a while to get used to.

The staging is stark and rather minimal, with just a few references to the Tudor period in items of furniture and in the style of the costumes (which are mainly black) but otherwise very little in terms of scenery. Very effective use was made of the revolving centre of the stage which provided movement without distracting from the most important aspect of the opera, namely the emotional turmoil of the characters on stage. The various elements of the staging and music came together in stunning fashion during Anna’s `Mad Scene’ near the end of Act II in which, delirious on the eve of her execution, she lapses into a trance-like state and relives happier moments while her friends gradually drift away into darkness. The lighting is sombre throughout the production, but in the Mad Scene Anna takes on a ghostly appearance. Musically speaking, this scene is quite famous – there’s an amazing version with Maria Callas as Anna here- but I found the cumulative effect of the elements of the life performance quite overwhelming. I’ll have to add this one to my list of pieces of music likely to make me fall to bits and thus to be avoided on trains…

A word too for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under conductor Daniele Rusitioni who played the gorgeous music impeccably. And another word for the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were also excellent, not just in their singing but also in their wider contributions onstage.

All in all, a very fine night at the opera. The only real disappointment for me was that there were so many empty seats. It’s true that Anna Bolena isn’t one of the best known operas, but it is a gem. I hope this production gets the audience it deserves. And I also hope I can get to see the rest of the Tudors!

PS. I notice that the Guardian review has given it 4 stars. Bit stingy, possibly..

The Annunciation of Death

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 19, 2013 by telescoper

It’s a lovely day so I thought I’d turn away to the doom and gloom of the ongoing bin strike towards a much cheerier subject: death. In the film about Stephen Hawking I saw last week there was a moving segment in which Hawking sought solace in music after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a few years to live. The specific piece of music he discussed was the Annunciation of Death by Richard Wagner. Not being a Wagner expert I wasn’t familiar with this piece so did a bit of research over the weekend to find out more about it. That turned out to be quite interesting.

The Annunciation of Death turns out to be a leitmotif  appearing in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often known as the Ring Cycle. Leitmotifs of various types occur throughout this epic series of four operas. Some are associated with individual characters, sometimes present on stage and sometimes absent but relevant to the drama. Other leitmotifs relate to specific emotional states, locations  or even inanimate objects (e.g. a sword).

The Annunciation of Death (in German: Todesverkundigen) makes its first appearance at the beginning of Act II Scene 4 of Die Walkürethe second Opera of the Ring Cycle, when Brünnhilde approaches to tell Siegmund of his impending death. You can see why Hawking thought of this when given his prognosis. This is the leitmotif

What’s interesting about this is that it is formed by the merger of two other leitmotifs, one relating to Erda, the Goddess of earth and the mother of the three Norns, who has the ability to see the future:

and another more generally associated with fate

Doom takes on a very specific manifestation for poor old Siegmund. Here is the leitmotif as it appears in the actual Opera, as part of the instrumental prelude to the glorious voice of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde singing Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!

I never expected to learn something new about Wagner by watching a film about Stephen Hawking, but there you go!

In Fernem Land (in Swedish)

Posted in Opera with tags , , on June 6, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today, but just before I head home from the office how about this? It’s In Fernem Land from the opera Lohengrin I went to see last weekend, but sung by the great tenor Jussi Björling not in German but in his native language, Swedish. I think it’s wonderful…

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