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…Follow @telescoper
Archive for the Opera Category
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…Follow @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..Follow @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 Walküre, the 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!Follow @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…Follow @telescoper
Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.
Lohengrin is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…
In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:
The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.
In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.
Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.
It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.
As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.
Lothar Koenigs is a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? - which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.
Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.
I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.
It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!Follow @telescoper
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