Archive for the Opera Category

An Interview with Lauritz Melchior

Posted in Opera with tags on March 10, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve written more than once about the great tenor Lauritz Melchior, and the other day I came across this fascinating interview with him recorded when he was in his eighties and was living in America.

It’s full of interesting comments, but I have to say that above all I just love the way he speaks. English spoken with a Danish accent sounds so wonderful to my ears, especially with that tendency to inflect downward at the end of words. It sounds wonderfully lugubrious.

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The Greatest Scarpia

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are always busy so today I’ll just put this here. It’s the great operatic baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang almost a thousand times in his career. This is the Te Deum scene, at the end of Act I, in which Scarpia after sending his men to follow Tosca to her lover Cavaradossi, he sings of his lustful desire as worshippers gather fora service at the Church in which the action takes place.

There have been many excellent interpreters of the role of Tosca (in which role I think Renata Tebaldi was every bit as good as Maria Callas) but Tito Gobbi (who sang the role with both Callas and Tebaldi) was the Scarpia of his age, and perhaps of any…

WNO Tosca

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on February 12, 2018 by telescoper

My current schedule takes me back and forth across the Irish Sea, making it a bit of challenge to take in as many musical events as I’d like to, but I did manage to get to see yesterday’s performance of Tosca at Welsh National Opera. I don’t usually go for afternoon performances, but this was basically my option. Not surprisingly there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre for a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals wine breaks…). It’s a melodrama, and is set in Rome in 1800. Each act takes place in a very specific location within the Eternal City. Act I is in the Church of  Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and the final denouement of Act III takes place among the battlements at the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo overlooking the Tiber. The setting is so specific to time and place that it resists being monkeyed about with, done in modern dress, staged in a chip shop or whatever. Thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s production (of which this is a revival) is very firmly of the period and location required. As a longstanding opera bore, I have to admit that I have been on a Tosca pilgrimage and have visited all three locations in Rome. The scenery used in last night’s performance isn’t exactly as the real locations but it definitely evokes them very well.

Floria Tosca (Claire Rutter) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Hector Sandoval), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Mark Doss), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch Tosca and Cavaradossi too. He lusts after Tosca and hates Cavaradossi. In Act II, we find Scarpia at home eating dinner for one while Cavaradossi is being tortured in order to find out the location of the escapee. Tosca turns up to plead for his life, but she hasn’t bargained with the true depths of Scarpia’s depravity. He wants to have his way with her, and to put pressure on he lets her listen to the sound of her lover being tortured. She finally consents, in return for Scarpia’s promise to let Cavaradossi go and grant free passage to the two of them. This he seems to do, but while she is waiting for him to write the letter of conduct she sees a knife. Instead of letting Scarpia defile her, she grabs it and stabs him to death. Act III begins with Cavaradossi facing execution, sure he is about to die. Tosca is convinced that this is just a charade and that Scarpia ordered them to pretend to shoot Cavaradossi so he wouldn’t look like he was being merciful, which would be out of character. The firing squad fire and Cavaradossi falls. But it was no fake. He is dead. Tosca is distraught and bewildered. Shouts offstage reveal that the police have found Scarpia’s body and that Tosca must have murdered him. To avoid capture she hurls herself from the battlements. Her last words are “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – “I’ll meet you before God, Scarpia”.

Hector Sandoval (Cavaradossi) and Claire Rutter (Tosca). Picture credit: WNO.

The opera wasn’t particularly well received when it was first performed in 1900, being famously described by one critic as “a shabby little shocker”, but it has become a firm favourite with audiences around the world and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of music drama. So how did Puccini manage to transform a penny-dreadful plot into a great work of art? I don’t think it’s hard to see why it works so well.

First and foremost, there’s the music, which  is wonderful throughout, but it is always plays an essential part in keeping everything moving. Of course there are the great arias: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore sung by Tosca in Act II and E Lucevan le Stelle from Act III, sung by Cavaradossi; but even apart from those tremendous set-pieces, Puccini uses the music to draw out the psychology of the characters and underline the drama. Although not usually associated with the use of leitmotifs, Puccini deploys them throughout: Scarpia’s arrival is announced with a suitably menacing theme that recurs whenever he is present or even just referred to.  This theme is actually the first thing we hear as the Opera starts. It also plays Scarpia out at the end of Act 1 when he sings his magnificently chilling Va Tosca over a setting of the Te Deum. Time does stand still for Tosca’s great Act II aria, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, but that just emphasises the pace of the rest of the piece. This is a work with no spare flesh or padding anywhere, and a perfect interplay between music and action. The moment when Tosca sees the knife with which she will kill Scarpia is signalled by the orchestra.

And that leads to the second point. Each of the three principals could have been very two-dimensional: Cavaradossi the good guy.; Scarpia the bad guy; Tosca the love interest. But all the characters have real credibility and depth. Cavaradossi is brave and generous, but he succumbs to despair before his death. No superhero this, just a man. Scarpia is a nasty piece of work all right, but at times he is pathetic and vulnerable. He is monstrous, but one is left with the impression that something made him monstrous. And then there’s Tosca, proud and jealous, loving but at the same time capable of violence and spite. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. In this production, she doesn’t just stab him once: she chases him around the room repeatedly plunging the knife into him, then stands over him  as he begs for help. There’s no attempt to sanitise the violence of his death. It’s all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

Top marks for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, who did full justice to Puccini’s magnificent score. Claire Rutter has a fine voice for the role, and I thought Hector Sandoval sang and acted wonderfully. The big numbers in Tosca are quite familiar, but they still sounded fresh and were performed with great feeling. Best of all, Mark Doss has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger. He even got a few pantomime boos at the end.

 

 

From the House of the Dead in Southampton

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

WNO Eugene Onegin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick review of my second opera of the new season at Welsh National Opera, Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which I saw on Friday evening. This Opera, based on a famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin continues this Autumn’s Russian theme, though it is very different in style from Khovanshchina which I saw last week.

The plot revolves around the eponynmous character Eugene Onegin who is dashing and handsome but also arrogant and self-centred. Young Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, and writes him an an impassioned love letter but he haughtily dismissed her advances, not least because she is a simple country girl. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga, girlfriend of his best friend Lensky who, infuriated, challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky in the duel then, in remorse, Onegin travels abroad for many years (during which he grows his hair long but apparently doesn’t change his suit). He returns to St Petersburg and attends a posh shindig only to find Tatyana all grown up and the belle of the ball. Now that she has some social standing he now finds her desirable, but it turns out that she’s married (to a Prince no less). Though she still fancies him – Heaven knows why, as Onegin is not at all a likeable character – she puts loyalty before passion, and Onegin is left alone with his regrets.

Tchaikovsky’s music is very beautiful, with memorable arias and passages for the chorus. The most famous piece is, of course, the Polonaise that opens Act III. I have to admit that although I’ve heard this piece dozens of times I never knew how to dance the Polonaise before seeing this production. Here’s what it looks like (from a rather more opulent production):

This production has a conventional design and overall look, and is none the worse for that. It’s very much a piece about a particular time and place. Classic countryside settings are contrasted with beautiful ballroom scenes using a simple but effective staging involving a wall across the entire stage with a large rectangular gap in the centre. This aperture is used as a window, or a grand door for the interior scenes but also as a clever way to suggest outdoor settings. The only problem with this device is that it does restrict the stage area quite a bit, so the ballroom scenes look a bit cramped. Costumes are in period style, their rich colours complementing the rather simple staging. Onegin makes his first appearance in black, complete with a top hat, looking rather like an undertaker.

The Opera is in Three Acts, adding up to seven scenes in all. That makes for quite a few changes of scenery and two intervals or, as I call them, wine breaks. The kind of opera I like best of all is the kind with two intervals…

Nicholas Lester (baritone) was a fine Onegin in a role that’s challenging mainly because the character is so unsympathetic; he does get to sing some lovely music. Natalya Romaniw (soprano) sang and acted beautifully, her transformation from country girl to high society lady was very convincing. Miklós Sebestyén (bass-baritone) took the singing honours, though, with a stunning vocal performance that was very warmly received by the audience. It almost goes without saying that the WNO chorus were excellent, but I’ll say it anyway.

P.S. The house was pretty much full, by the way, which is good news. I just wish more people would turn up for the less familiar works!

WNO Khovanshchina

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 24, 2017 by telescoper

So, as promised, yesterday evening I took a stroll down to Cardiff Bay for the opening night of this run of Welsh National Opera’s production of Kovasnshchina. The walk proved a bit more eventful than anticipated because I blundered into the middle of some sort of police operation involving the pursuit of a suspect but I made it to the Wales Millennium Centre on time and relatively unruffled.

Khovanshchina (which roughly translates as `The Khovansky Affair’ or `The Khovansky Episode’) is based on historical events that took place in Moscow in the 1682. Prince Khovansky, at the head of his private army (the Strelsty) leads a rebellion against the government represented by Sofia, who is regent on behalf of her young brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (destined to become Peter the Great) who has, with assistance from her lover Prince Golitsyn, restricted the power of the the Boyars (aristocracy). These rebels form an uneasy alliance with The Old Believers, who are opposed to religious reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon. The rebellion is crushed by Peter’s army. Khovansky is murdered, but the Streltsy, having been lined up to be executed, are spared by the young Tsar. Golitsyn is forced into exile. The Old Believers, on the other hand, convinced that the failure of the uprising means that the devil is taking over the world, opt for mass suicide.

Mussorgsky was inspired to write this Opera by the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great (who was born in 1672). He worked on it, off and on, composing the music and writing the libretto, from 1872 until his death in 1881 and which point it still wasn’t finished. His friend Nikllai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently completed the work, and it is his version that is most frequently performed. This production, however, uses a different version, completed in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the addition of the final scene – the immolation of the Old Believers – the music for which was composed by Igor Stravinsky. The compositional history of this piece is almost as complex as the historical events it depicts.

At a very basic level the message of Khovanshchina is “look how terrible everything was before Peter the Great”. None of the protagonists is a remotely sympathetic character, especially Khovansky himself who is an extremely unpleasant individual, as is his son, whom we first meet trying to force his attentions on a young German girl. Khovansky Senior arrives on the scene to stop him assaulting the girl, but only because he wants her for himself. They’re all charm, these Khovanskys.

Golitsyn seems at first like a good guy, but when a fortune teller forecasts doom and gloom he casually orders her to be murdered. The Old Believers just seem to be a group of religious maniacs. Peter the Great never actually appears on stage and neither does Sofia, a deliberate ploy to focus our attention on the undesirables in front of us. The story that unfolds is one full of horror and brutality, while hope waits in the wings, perhaps never to arrive.

This particular episode also serves to highlight the themes that recur elsewhere in Russian history, and indeed the history of any country that has a history, namely the conflicts between reason and superstition, between rich and poor, between East and West and, well, between War and Peace…

David Pountney’s design for  this production isn’t specific to the 17th century. The striking set, with its curious juxtaposition of abstract geometrical forms, owes much to the constructivist art that informed the iconography of the early Soviet era. Other elements of the design, such as the costumes of the serfs (grey) and the Old Believers (white), are more traditional. The Streltsy wear uniforms that look 20th century, but are a bright pink. This colour-coding is helpful, actually, given the complexities of the plot, and the fact that the stage is frequently crowded. The final apocalyptic suicide scene is not an immolation, but death by poison gas, administered by a steampunk contraption that descends from above the stage. These, and other devices, shift attention away from the specifics and emphasize the thematic universality of the piece.

Spread over five acts, and lasting about 3½ hours (including one interval), Khovanshchina is quite a long Opera but it doesn’t get bogged down because so much is happening musically, dramatically and visually.  It may not be the most comfortable viewing, but it’s a gripping story compelling realised. I certainly never felt bored, though I do wish I’d read a little more about the story beforehand as I got a bit confused in places.

With the exception of a few iffy moments by the French horns, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus played excceedingly well, adding a sense of danger to the opening prelude that set the tone wonderfully. A special mention must be made of the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were absolutely magnificent, showing off some of the sublime choral writing in this opera as well as provide lots of energy and colour to the crowd scenes.  It isn’t really fair to single out any of the principals, as this is really an ensemble piece, but I thought Robert Hayward was absolutely compelling.

There are two more performances in Cardiff but this piece goes on tour. Do go and see it if you can. It’s an enthralling experience.

 

Dawn over the Moscow River

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 22, 2017 by telescoper

If the world doesn’t come to an end tomorrow, around 7pm I hope to be in my seat at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay for the start of Khovanschina performed by Welsh National Opera, it being the first night of their new season.

Khovanschina, composed by Modest Mussorgsky, is not a particular well-known opera but the lovely Prelude to Act I is performed fairly often as a concert piece with the title Dawn Over the Moscow River. Here it is, played in 1991 by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev: