Archive for the Opera Category

R.I.P. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on July 12, 2015 by telescoper

Ah well. Back in the office on a rainy Sunday afternoon after a few days away trying to catch up before a very busy week next week. I thought I’d pause first, however, to pay my respects to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose death I learnt of last night. Many tributes have been paid to him already, including several examples of his work on Radio 3 this morning. There’s nothing much I can add to them except to say that he not only had a great voice, but was also a fine actor with a powerful stage presence.

What I can do is post again one of my favourite examples of Jon Vickers, singing the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?


The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but this later version starring Jon Vickers is quite different, and the inner agony portrayed by Vickers’ voice in the upper register is most moving. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

Rest in Peace, Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Pelléas et Mélisande at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on June 8, 2015 by telescoper

Having had a very busy working birthday it was nice to take off to Cardiff for the weekend for a delayed treat. For me the cultural event of the weekend in the Welsh capital was neither One Direction nor the Manic Street Preachers, both which bands were playing there that weekend. It wasn’t even the Ladyboys of Bangkok, which I would definitely have preferred to either of the former acts. No, it was an evening at the Wales Millennium Centre for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy.

This was an opera that was quite new to me, though I did know that the previous production of this work by Welsh National Opera was back in 1992 and the conductor was none other than Pierre Boulez. There is a famous recording of the piece on Deutsche Grammaphon, so the bar was set rather high for the new production. I don’t often agree with opera reviews so don’t usually read them before I go in case they put me off, but I did read the review in the Guardian of the opening night (May 31st) performance of this one as I was sent it by a friend. As it turns out there’s little I can add to George Hall’s review. It was absolutely magnificent.

The plot of Pelléas et Mélisande is, on one level, fairly simple. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. She becomes his wife and goes to live with him in the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. After a while, though, Mélisande gets the hots for Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas and he reciprocates her feelings. Eventually Golaud starts to suspect that there’s something going and goes out of his way to find out how far the relationship has developed. He even gets his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Since it’s all getting a bit weird, Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time before he departs. Golaud gatecrashes the meeting and kills Pelléas in a jealous rage. Mélisande eventually dies too, but not until it is revealed that she has given birth to a daughter. Golaud never really finds out “the truth”, i.e. whether Pelléas and Mélisande ever consummated their love for each other.

But of course the plot tells only part of the story. This opera is based on the symbolist play of the same title by Maurice Maeterlinck. It’s an essential component of the symbolist manifesto that art should try to represent absolute truths that can only be expressed indirectly. Consequently very little in Pelléas et Mélisande is quite what it seems on the surface. The characters are enigmatic, especially Mélisande, and the boundary between reality and imagination is often blurred to such an extent that it takes on the quality of a dream.

That may all seem very confusing, but what binds it all together is Debussy’s music which was a revelation to me: all the sensuality I associate with his music was there, but it’s far darker and more mysterious than I’d imagined in my mind’s ear before the show. I have to say that the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs was absolutely magnificent. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard them play – and they’ve been excellent many times I’ve heard them. They obviously rose magnificently to the challenge set by Pierre Boulez. As for the singers, I don’t think there were any weak links at all but for me the pick of them was Rebecca Bottone in the “trouser role” of the young boy, Yniold. She sang and acted quite beautifully.

I didn’t realise straightaway, but the set was based on the same metallic structure used for the WNO production of Lulu, although in this case it wasn’t festooned with body parts, although there was a pool of water around it. Come to think of it, there is quite a lot in common between the characters of Lulu and Mélisande, which may be why they did it that way. Or it might just have been to save money. Anyway, cylindrical structure in the centre of the stage was used very cleverly indeed. At one time it represented a tower, at another a well, and even when it wasn’t being used it added a touch of steampunk to the look.

I also have to mention the staging of the final scene. Mélisande’s death was depicted most movingly, wrapped in black scarves by maidservants. At the end of the performance, the rest of the cast are escorted offstage by a representation of death there’s a beautiful image of rebirth as a hand rises defiantly from a white shroud.

Congratulations to Welsh National Opera on this production. I don’t think I’m often given to exaggeration but I’d call this one a triumph!

Being Both

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My third consecutive Brighton Festival event of the week was Being Both, which featured mezzo soprano Alice Coote along with the English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket (at the dreaded harpsichord). The music for the evening was all provided by George Frideric Handel in the form of a wide selection of arias from his operas and oratorios. It wasn’t just a concert, though. Alice Coote acted as well as sang, and various props and visual references supplemented her performance. There were also few extras who spent most of the show painting a slogan on a screen behind the orchestra: “You who are more than one thing, You who exceed expectations”. I added the comma myself.

When Handel was writing operas it was pretty typical for the heroic male lead to be played by a castrato, so these parts were scored for rather high voices. It was only much later in the history of opera that these roles became associated with tenor voices. The register in which a castrato would naturally sing is somewhere around that of a female contralto or mezzo soprano or a male counter-tenor. Modern stagings of Handel’s operas therefore tend to cast the leading make character either as a counter-tenor (male), as a “trouser role” for a female singer, or simply as a female character with no attempt to disguise the singer’s gender. The latter option can be extremely interesting as it allows the production to cast an interesting light on the way gender influences our preconceptions about character. In Being Both we saw Alice Coote singing some roles that were intended to be sung by male artists and others by female artists; since it was the person singing and “being” both it successfully blurred the distinction between these roles as well as poking a bit of fun at the dated attitudes represented in the texts.

The best part of the performance was Alice Coote. She has a gorgeous voice and commanded the stage in superb style. As for the English Concert, I was alarmed by some truly awful horn playing in the opening number, but the brass section wasn’t used at all after that and the remainder of the orchestra (mainly strings) played pretty well. It’s the “semi-staging” that troubled me most. The use of props was unsubtle and gimmicky and the overall feel of the production rather pretentious. I found the slow painting of the slogan behind the orchestra a distraction both from Alice Coote’s performance and for the music. It seemed to me to be saying “if you’re not enjoying the show why not watch some paint dry as an alternative?”

Wonderful artist though Alice Coote is, I did find myself wishing for a bit more variety in the vocal parts. Handel’s operas involve an enormous range of contrasts in different combinations of different voices. Hearing a series of excerpts all performed in the same register by the same artist robs the works of the dramatic interplay that makes Handel’s operas and oratiorios so special. I suppose that just tells you that I find an proper Opera a much more interesting experience than a string of arias performed out of context.

Madama Butterfly

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on April 9, 2015 by telescoper

I have half an hour to spare this lunchtime so I thought I would do a quick review of  the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly I saw last Saturday (4th April) at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I got up at 4.30 on Saturday morning to get the 6am bus from Cardiff into London in order to see this Matinee, which started at 12.30, as the trains were screwed up by engineering work over the Easter weekend. As it happened the National Express coach  ran right on schedule so I had plenty of time to get breakfast and pick up the tickets from the Box Office before the performance.

The story of Madama Butterfly must be familiar enough to opera-goers. Cio-Cio-San – the Madam Butterfly of the title – a 15 year old Geisha, is betrothed to Lieutenant BF Pinkerton of the United States Navy who has come to Japan with his ship. Pinkerton is contemptuous of all things Japanese, and shows his true nature by explaining that he has paid just 100 Yen  for his new wife via a marriage broker. She, however, is devoted to her new husband; so much so that she renounces her religion in favour of that of her man (although I doubt Pinkerton ever goes to church). Act I culminates with their wedding and a gorgeous love duet with the kind of ravishing music that only Puccini can supply. Butterfly, who is really just a child, has certainly fallen for Pinkerton but the music seems to suggest that he has even convinced himself that it’s real love.

Act II is set three years later. Pinkerton has gone back to the States, but Butterfly waits patiently for his return, singing the beautiful aria Un bel di vedremo, or One Fine Day as it is usually translated. Her maid Suzuki thinks that he will never come back – she never liked Pinkerton anyway – and points out that they’re running out of money, but Butterfly refuses to contemplate giving up on him and marrying again. She  has had a son by Pinkerton and intends to remain faithful. At the end of Scene 1 we find that Pinkerton’s ship has arrived and Butterfly waits all night to greet him. The exquisitely poignant cora a bocca chiusa (humming chorus) accompanies her vigil.

After this intermezzo, Scene 2 finds  us at dawn the following day. Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton shows up, but he has brought with him a new American wife who offers to rescue Butterfly from poverty by adopting her son and taking him to America. Butterfly awakes, finds out what has happened. Pinkerton has left money for her but she refuses to take it, having already decided to kill herself.  She says goodbye to her son with the heartbreaking aria  Tu, tu piccolo iddio, binds his eyes so he can’t see, then kills herself. Pinkerton and his wife arrive to see her bloody corpse.

Well, what did you expect from an opera,  a happy ending?

In this production the principals were the brilliant soprano Kristine Opolais as Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde, who was a solid but unspectacular Pinkerton.  It turned out to be the last performance with these particular leading performers before a cast change. In fact this performance came up as “sold out” when I first looked on the website, but I persevered and managed to find a couple of tickets a few days later. I’m certainly glad we got to see Kristine Opalais who was in superb voice as the tragic heroine and acted with great subtlety and conviction. I’d also like to mention Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki, who was also very good.

The performance got off to a strange start, with an announcement from the stage that it would be delayed by about 30 minutes due to “serious problems backstage”. I wondered whether it was some mechanical problem with the set or a bust-up between members of the cast that needed to be calmed down. The orchestra began a bit hesitantly too, perhaps unsettled by the delay, but soon recovered.

The original production of Madam Butterfly was staged in 1904 (although it took several revisions before the two-act version we saw last night emerged). It therefore dates from a time when Europeans (including Puccini) were quite ignorant about Japanese culture. Modern audiences probably find some of the stereotypes rather uncomfortable. I would say, however, that the only two characters in the Opera to show any moral integrity and nobility of spirit are the maid Suzuki and Butterfly herself. The rest are unpleasant in some way or other, especially Pinkerton who is completely odious. So the Opera is not at all nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated and the whole opera glosses over the reality that the world of Cio-Cio-San is basically one in which child prostitution is commonplace.

Madama Butterfly is worth it for the music alone. Call me a softi,e but I love Puccini’s music which, after a slightly ropy start,  was handled beautifully by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Nicola Luisotti.  This production was also visually beautiful, with exquisite costumes and a set consisting of a simple open space, accentuated from time to time with splashes of cherry blossom and glimpses of landscape and night sky revealed through sliding panels.

Here’s the trailer of the 2011 version of this production (with the same scenery and costumes) to give you an idea:

There’s only a couple of performances left of this run, but something tells me it will be revived again in the not too distant future.

Una Furtiva Lagrima

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , on December 2, 2014 by telescoper

Too busy for a proper post today so here’s a bit of music. On Saturday I had the pleasure of listening on BBC Radio 3 to a live broadcast of the opera L’elisir d’amore from Covent Gardens, one of my all-time favourite works. I definitely have a thing for the kind of Italian Bel Canto exemplified by the work of Gaetano Donizetti and this is one of his greatest; certainly his most performed anyway. One the surface it’s a light romantic comedy with a very silly plot involving a quack doctor and a fake potion, but it’s beautifully characterized and has considerable dramatic depth and wonderful music. I don’t mind daft operas, as long as they’re sufficiently daft to be true to real life…

Anyway, listening on the radio made me realise how long it has been since I went to see an opera live. Looking at the Covent Garden website to see if there were any more performances due, I saw the prices of the remaining tickets, which brough tears to my eyes. All of which brings me to the highlight of L’elisir d’amore, the Act III aria Una Furtiva Lagrima, one of the most famous and beautiful tenor arias in the entire repertoire. Here it is, sung by the late great Pavarotti. Enjoy!

Oh, and while I am on the theme of opera I’ll just mention that Maria Callas was born on this day in 1923. Happy Birthday, La Divina!

Callas

Signore, ascolta!

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 3, 2014 by telescoper

Time for a Friday lunchtime end-of-the-week kind of a post. This is the great Montserrat Caballé singing the beautiful aria Signore, ascolta! from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. As the title suggests, you should listen to the whole thing because it’s lovely, but be prepared for something truly astonishing from about 2.16 onwards as the singer demonstrates unbelievable control by holding that final high note in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible..

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.

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