Archive for the Opera Category

Verdi’s Macbeth at Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on September 16, 2016 by telescoper

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Last night I saw the new Welsh National Opera production of The Scottish Opera Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi at the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre (above), resplendent in the sunshine of a late summer evening.

The original version of this opera was first performed in 1847, quite early in Verdi’s career, but was signicantly revised for a revival about twenty years later. Verdi’s two other Shakespeare-inspired operas, Falstaff and his masterpiece Otello, were written after a gap of about forty years after Macbeth, perhaps because Verdi discovered in Macbeth how difficult it is to adapt an entire play, especially one by Shakespeare, into an opera. The basic problem is that the text is far too long, so has to be drastically abridged to create a workable libretto. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays in terms of word count, but it does have many changes of location. You can see the problems this posed for Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, because the opera sometimes feels rather disjointed. Watching last night I sometimes felt that it was like watching the plot unfold on fast-forward. Another problem is that Macbeth is that many famous speeches have be truncated or cut out altogether. I’m quite familiar with the play, having studied it at school, but until last night had never seen the Opera, so it was a bit of disappointment to find Macbeth’s great soliloquy after the death of Lady Macbeth chopped to only a couple of lines. The same is the case with Lady Macbeth’s great speech upon the arrival of Duncan (“the Raven himself is hoarse…).

On the other hand, there is Verdi’s music, which provides a dramatic landscape of its own and smooths over some of the limitations imposed by the operatic form.

But enough of the problems with the Opera as compared to Shakespeare’s play and back to last night’s performance. This production had its first night last Saturday to relatively mixed reviews. I have to say that I thought it was superb. The action is set in the modern Scotland of a dystopian parallel universe, with a governing elite dressed in kilts and smart tweeds kept in power by armed paramilitaries in body armour, and assorted ruffians in shell suits and bobble hats. The Three Witches who prophesy that Macbeth is to be King are in this production actually three groups of seven or eight, each group having its own distinctive costume, their multiplicity producing a disturbingly scary effect. They also sang wonderfully, as did the rest of the truly outstanding Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were on blistering form.

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Members of the WNO Chorus as one of the three groups of Witches

Some reviewers found the staging unnecessarily brutal, which seems to me to be a rather silly view to take. This is Macbeth, not Mary Poppins! But in any case this isn’t the gorefest that I’ve seen in some theatrical versions of the play. In fact, the most bloodthirsty acts happen offstage. The exception is the assassination of Banquo who is stabbed and suffocated with plastic sheeting in front of the audience; his subsequent sudden appearance as a ghost in the famous banquet scene, his head still covered with bloody plastic, is accomplished with a smart piece of theatrical misdirection, and is startlingly effective.

When I read Macbeth at school it struck me that by far the most interesting character in the play was Lady Macbeth. Although her husband is a brave warrior on the battlefield he’s in many ways a bit of a drip. She has power over him and it is her that drives him on to his ultimate destruction. In this production Lady Macbeth (played by Mary Elizabeth Williams) is portrayed as a kind of cross between Imelda Marcos and Elena Ceaușescu (complete with a vast collection of fur coats and expensive shoes), the wife of a tyrannical leader unaware of the inevitability of his downfall. The staging of Acts III and IV plays on the obvious parallels with other historical dictatorships.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Lady Macbeth dominated the first two acts of the play, her very fine voice (great power and lovely mezzo tones) matched by a powerful stage presence. That she overshadowed baritone Luis Cansino as Macbeth is not a criticism – I think it should be that way. Lady Macbeth does not appear at all in Act III and only once in Act IV when we see she has already lost the plot along with her marbles, sleepwalking and possessed by hallucinations. Soon after that, she dies (offstage), aand Macbeth himself surrenders to his fate at the hands of Macduff. At the very end, though, after his death aria, and just before the curtain falls, it is Fleance (the young son of the murdered Banquo and the future King) who cuts the throat of the dying Macbeth.

Anyway, if you have read the reviews of this production then don’t let them put you off. I thought it was a very provocative and interesting take on a familiar story and well worth going to see unless you only like your opera bland and formulaic.

Vesti La Giubba

Posted in History, Opera with tags , on July 19, 2016 by telescoper

On what looks set to be the hottest day of the year I’m getting ready to head off to the Brighton Dome for this afternoon’s graduation ceremony for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. This requires the wearing of ridiculously heavy robes on top of a suit which means that I’ll probably melt even before I start reading the names out. Anyway, the need to wear silly clothes for this performance reminded me of the famous aria Vesti La Giubba, which I translate roughtly as “Put on the costume”, from the  Opera Pagliacci. Here is a collection of recordings of this by the great Enrico Caruso, whose 1907 version of Vesti La Giubba was the world’s first million-selling record.

 

Cav/Pag and WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2016 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Brighton after a short break either side of my nth birthday (where n→∞). As is traditional on such occasions I spent the evening of the day in question at the Wales Millennium Centre for a night at the Opera:

WNO

On the bill for Saturday night were Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, two short operas written (respectively) by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Both works are in the verismo tradition of late 19th Century Italian opera and have central themes of love, jealousy, betrayal revenge and murder. So idea fare for a birthday treat!

The “Cav/Pag” package is quite a familiar pairing to opera goers. They weren’t actually written to be performed together, though it is believed that Leoncavallo wrote his piece Pagliacci in response to the success of Cavalleria Rusticana. The compositional style and orchestration are not dissimilar and often the principals are played by the same singers. The latter was the case with Saturday’s production, at least in terms of the two male roles: Gwyn Hughes Jones (shown below as Canio in Pagliacci; he also sang Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana) sang both tenor parts, while David Kempster (baritone) played Alfio (Cav) and Tonio (Pag). Both were excellent throughout.

Pagliacci.GwynHughesJones(Canio).Photocredit-BillCooper1244a

These two productions of this combo differ very much in their look and feel. Cavalleria Rusticana is beautifully staged, in a conventional 19th Century rural Italian setting. The lighting is particularly impressive: the opening looks like a scene from a painting by a Grand Master. The excellent chorus of Welsh National Opera is very much to the fore, especially in the famous Easter Hymn, and the principal soprano Camilla Roberts sang the role of Santuzza with great depth of expression. Carlo Rizzi conducted the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

Pagliacci is given a more modern setting – costumes were generally around the 1950s – but still set in Italy. The set is much plainer and the lighting harsher. The chorus has less to do in terms of singing, but provides colour and movement to the drama. Although the two male principals were good I felt the cast overall was weaker. Meeta Raval (Nedda) sang her part well enough, and got some good laughs in the moments of comedy, but she didn’t have the emotional depth needed to make her part really come alive. Gyula Nagy (as Nedda’s lover Silvio) also sang well enough, but really needs to take some acting lessons..

The big set-piece in Pagliacci is Vesti La Giubba, a powerfully emotional tenor ara which never fails to move. Enrico Caruso’s version of this was the hit record of its day.

Although there were some shortcomings it was still a very enjoyable evening of music drama. Indeed it was the last night in Cardiff for this season, Welsh National Opera’s 70th. The company’s debut when it gave its first performance – as an amateur organisation – on 15th April 1946, was a double bill of Cavalleria Rustica and Pagliacci

I’d therefore like to end by wishing Welsh National Opera a very happy birthday and send my deepest thanks for providing me with so many hours of pleasure through their performance. Long may they continue!

 

 

Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , on May 6, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s something to end the week with: a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.

Akhnaten at ENO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2016 by telescoper

Having had a very stressful time at work over the last few days I decided on the spur of the moment to treat myself to a night at the Opera. The hottest tickets in London right now are for English National Opera’s new production of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, but I managed to get one for Thursday night’s performance. I’m so glad I did, as it really lived up to the the reviews.

The Opera Akhnaten, which had its world premiere in 1983, is based on a real historical figure, Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt over 3300 years ago. Act I begins with the funeral rites of his father Amenhotep III, his son’s installation as Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and the beginning of his 17-year reign alongside his wife Nefertiti.

Roughly five years into his rule, however, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and set up a new, monotheistic religion, in which the Aten (the disk of the Sun) represented the supreme divine influence. Not content with that, he decided to up sticks from the city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) and found a new city called Amarna in the desert. Act II is set in the Amarna period. It seems that, although Akhnaten had revolutionary ideas about religion, the costs of establishing this new way of life, and the resentment it caused among advocates of the old order, put strain on the kingdom of Egypt. In Act III we find Akhnaten and his family in a state of total detachment from the reality of the disintegration of his empire. Ailing and  beset by hostile forces, Akhnaten eventually dies.

After Akhnaten’s death the Amarna project was abandoned, as was the new religion, and the 18th Dynasty resumed with the enthronment of Akhnaten’s son, a young boy by the name of Tutankhamun. Very little remains of the City of Amarna and there seems to have been a systematic attempt to eradicate Akhnaten from historical memory. One suspects that the priests of the old religion played a not inconsiderable role in these developments.

But  Glass’s Akhnaten is more of a reflection or meditation on this extraordinary period than an attempt to depict it via a traditional historical narrative. His minimalist score also challenges the conventions of grand opera. The music develops only incrementally and the actors move in a correspondingly stylised fashion. Each act consists of a set of dreamlike tableaux mixing up the archaeological elements of the story with references to the modern world. In the first Act, for example, the funerary rites of Amenhotep IV involve characters in both ancient and modern dress to emphasize that death has been, and remains, a mystery for all cultures and civilisations.

It’s obviously an enormous challenge to bring such a work to the stage, but this production (developed in conjunction with the theatre company Improbable) rose to that challenge with great imagination. To counter the sense of stasis generated by the music, for example, there was a liberal influsion of brilliantly executed and extremely kinetic juggling. I knew there was going to be juggling  before the performance and had worried that it might be distracting, or even just a gimmick. In fact I think the juggling worked extremely well not only in the context of the opera but also in the context of history; some of the earliest depictions of juggling are from ancient Egypt. The costumes and lighting add even more to the spectacular visual  experience.

I don’t like all of Philip Glass’s music but I do think that Akhnaten is a masterpiece of minimalism. It’s full of subtle and interesting ideas but also extremely accessible, and it creates a strange hypnotic atmosphere which goes perfectly with this staging. The orchestra played the music well, though I felt the brass section could have played with a bit more “bite”, especially in the first Act. The ENO chorus was in excellent voice, as were all the principals: soprano Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother) and mezzo Emma Carrington as Nefertiti (Akhnaten’s wife) both sang extremely their demanding parts with great poise.

But I have to make special mention of Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten. He makes his first appearance on stage in Act I completely naked, walking slowly as if in a trance across a gallery and down the stairs in centre stage, and is then dressed in the garb of a Pharoah. His appearance then – slim, athletic, definitely masculine, and I have to say not inconsiderably sexy – contrasts with his increasingly androgynous appearance later on. But it  is his stage presence and the truly remarkable quality of his singing that I will remember.

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Akhnaten attempts to commune with the Aten. Picture credit: Guardian

Despite all I have written about the juggling and other aspects of the staging, for me the most powerful scene of the Opera is the last scene of Act II which is effective primarily for its simplicity. Here Akhnaten sings a longish aria in the form of Hymn to the Aten, which is based on an ancient text but bearing striking resemblance to Psalm 104 (a point underlined when the chorus sings Psalm 104, in Biblical Hebrew, offstage afterwards).This is the only part of the text sung in English; the rest is in a mixture of Aramaic, Akkadian and Hebrew. Constanzo’s rendition of the Hymn was stunningly beautiful, the clarity of his voice giving it a childlike sense of wonder. Akhnaten then walks slowly up a staircase in front of a representation of the Aten (above), then turns towards it and reaches out with both arms in an attempt to touch it, but he can’t reach it. He turns to face the audience, a desolate expression on his face, and the curtain falls on Act II.

That moment is so poignant because it spells out the universal nature of Akhnaten’s tragedy. His downfall seems inevitable from that point. He tries, as we all do in one way or another, and at some time or another, to commune with something beyond human existence. Inevitably, he fails, and his obsession costs him not only his kingdom, but also his life.

 

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on January 24, 2016 by telescoper

After spending most of the day on campus for the first Applicant Visit Day of 2106 at the University of Sussex I went home feeling a bit exhausted, but my spirits were soon lifted when I switched on BBC Radio 3 to find a broadcast just startiong of Tannhäuser (or  Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg to give it it’s full title). It wasn’t quite the usual Saturday Night Live from the Met because the performance was actually recorded on October 31st 2015 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so I won’t quibble about that. Composed in 1845,  Tannhäuser is a relatively early work by Richard Wagner which he called a  “Romantic opera in three acts” indicating that it has the structure of a conventional opera; later on in his career he was to abandon that format in favour of the Music Drama (which is not built on a succession of arias and recitatives) as Tannhäuser is.

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, but Tannhäuser is basically about typical Wagnerian themes: the conflict between spiritual and earthly love, between life and death, and the hope of redemption. The eponymous hero, a minstrel knight, takes a walk on the wild side in Act I by visiting Venusberg, in the course of which he is unfaithful to his beloved Elizabeth. He turns up in Act II at Wartburg where there i a sort of mediaeval Eurovision Song contest. First singer up is the naive but honorable Wolfram who sings a beautiful song about courtly love, but Tannhäuser finds it all a bit tame and sings a much raunchier number, which reveals that he’s been a naughty boy. There is uproar, swords are drawn and it all gets a bit fraught. Eventually Tannhäuser is persuaded to atone for his transgressions by undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately for him the Pope isn’t in an absolving mood and tells him he’s going to suffer eternal damnation. In Act III, Tannhäuser, clearly unhinged, talks about returning to Venusberg – if he’s damned anyway he might as well go out with a bang – but then he discovers his beloved Elizabeth is dead and, overcome by grief and remorse,  he dies too.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to Wagner, but last night I was hooked from the moment I switched the radio on and listened right through to the end, which came four hours later. I have heard Tannhäuser before and knew the familiar show-stoppers (especially the famous Pilgrim’s Chorus, which is as uplifting a piece of music as you will hear anywhere). What was so very special last night, however, was the quality of the singing, which was truly wonderful all the way through the principals and chorus. The broadcast is available on iPlayer for the next month. If you have never had a taste of Wagner, give it a go. This opera is full of great tunes but they were sung better in this performance than in any other I have heard. As a little taster, here is Wolfram (sung by baritone Peter Mattei) from the same production we heard last night, singing his Act III aria O du mein holder Abendstern (O thou my fair evening star).

 

 

Maria Callas: “Ah, rendetemi la speme…”

Posted in Opera with tags , on September 16, 2015 by telescoper

I’m reminded that Maria Callas (“La Divina”) passed away on this day in 1977, so by way of a tribute here she is singing a famous “Mad Scene” from the Opera I saw at the Wales Millennium Centre last week, I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini. This is a rare recording of the young Callas, aged only 25, made in 1949. It’s historically important too, because Callas stepped into this production at short notice in Venice that year, having started out on a  career as a dramatic soprano singing Wagnerian roles. Critics sneered when they heard that she had been cast as Elvira, but almost overnight she transformed the role and so began her almost single-handed revival of the entire bel canto repertoire.

One critic wrote:

Even the most sceptical had to acknowledge the miracle that Maria Callas accomplished… the flexibility of her limpid, beautifully poised voice, and her splendid high notes. Her interpretation also has a humanity, warmth and expressiveness that one would search for in vain in the fragile, pellucid coldness of other Elviras.

Her she is as Elvira, deranged by the loss of her beloved who has vanished without explanation. It’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s not the best sound quality, but the emotional power of her voice shines through. Few singers have even come close to matching Callas in roles like this.

Qui la voce sua soave mi chiamava…e poi sparì.
Qui giurava esser fedele,  qui il giurava,
E poi crudele, mi fuggì!
Ah, mai più qui assorti insieme nella gioia dei sospir.
Ah, rendetemi la speme,  o lasciate, lasciatemi morir.