Archive for the Opera Category

Le Vin herbé

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 17, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff for the opening night of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Le Vin herbé  by Swiss-born composer Frank Martin. This isn’t a work with which I was previously familiar so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but then that’s why I usually particularly hard to get to see departures from the standard repertoire. It’s not that I’m at all bored with Mozart, Puccini et al but that it’s always good to keep an ear open for new things.  In fact there is only one performance of this piece in Cardiff this year before it goes on tour. Fortunately I was able to make it.

Le Vin herbé is based on the story of Tristan and Iseult ; the title refers to the potion that the two lead characters accidentally drink which makes them fall in love and thus betray King Mark of Cornwall, who is Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband-to-be. Naturally tt all ends in disaster, with the two lovers both dying. But if the story makes you think of Wagner’s epic operatic telling of this legend, Tristan und Isolde then you need to think again, as this is a very different piece. Le Vin herbé is a much more intimate work, with a relatively small case and a band of just eight musicians (a piano and seven string players) who, in this production, were at centre stage throughout the performance rather than in the pit. The main characters are played by tenor Tom Randle (Tristan) and soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Iseult) – both of whom were brilliant – and some of their lines are also sung by the chorus and there are also solo storytellers to provide bits of the narrative. The set and staging is very minimal. In fact it’s more of a chamber oratorio than an Opera. Also the entire performances lasts under two hours, with no interval. Quite a lot shorter than Wagner’s version!

I think the instrumental music by Frank Martin is very fine indeed, and very well played by the musicians directed by James Southall, and the principals and chorus were in good voice. Having said that I think Martin’s writing for voices is less successful. The vocal lines consciously evokes mediaeval plainsong, which works quite well for the chorus but makes it difficult for the soloists to generate any melodic drive. It’s not helped by the libretto either, which is rather dry and undramatic. On the way home from the performance I couldn’t help wondering what it might have been like had the text been in mediaeval Latin! The staging was at times effective: some of the scenes between Tristan and Iseult were very moving, but the stage was too busy and confusing when the whole chorus got involved.

This probably sounds very critical, but I don’t mean it to be. There’s much to enjoy in this production, so I’d encourage you to go and form their own opinion. It’s on tour in Bristol, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Plymouth and Southampton. Last night’s performance got a very warm reception from a pretty full house which, for an unusual work like this, is a very good sign.

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by telescoper

I only heard yesterday the very sad news that the fine Swedish operatic tenor Nicolai Gedda passed away on 8th January 2017 at the age of 91.  The news wasn’t announced by his family until February 9th, which explains part of the reason I am so late to post a little tribute. This is from the first recording I ever heard of die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (made in 1964, conducted by Otto Klemperer) in which Gedda sings Tamino alongside the equally wonderful Gundula Janowitz as Pamina.  This CD played a huge role in getting me interested in Opera, so it is with special sadness but also special admiration that I say farewell to Nicolai Gedda.

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

 

La Bohème at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on January 30, 2017 by telescoper

So, to get away from the world for a short while I went on Saturday to the opening night of the new season by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff – a tale of poverty and doomed love, ending in a tragic death. Well, what did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?

I suppose the story of La Bohème will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Opera, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway.  It’s a boy-meets-girl love story, of course. The boy in this case is the poet Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and the girl, actually named Lucia but known  as Mimi (Marina Costa-Jackson).  The setting is Paris around 1830, and the poet and his painter friend Marcello (Gary Griffiths) are starving and freezing, as it is winter and they have no money.  Act I is set on Christmas Eve, but the two friends have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. Fortunately, their musician friend Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) turns up with money and provisions. After various comings and goings – including the arrival of philosopher Colline (Jihoon Kim) and an untimely visit from the landlord (Howard Kirk) everyone but Rodolfo leaves to spend Christmas Eve out on the town; Rodolfo has to finish a piece for a journal, and promises to join them when he is done. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mimi, who lives nearby and whose candle has gone out. It’s love at first sight…

The later stages of Act I are built around Rodolfo’s aria Che Gelida Manina (“your tiny hand is frozen”) and Mimi’s Mi Chiamano Mimi. These beautiful songs follow one another in quick succession, and are then rounded off with a wonderful duet O Soave Fanciulla  in a manner guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. And, before you ask, yes I did cry again. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone noticed.

But it’s not just the ravishing music that makes this passage so special, it’s also Puccini’s gift as a story-teller: after the two arias by Rodolfo and Mimi, the audience knows everything they need to know about these characters. It’s a great example of why I think Puccini is a far greater writer of Opera than, say, Wagner. Puccini understood much better than Wagner how to vary  pace and colour  without allowing the story to bogged down, and he knew exactly how to use his big tunes to maximum dramatic effect (i.e. without excessive repetition). In fact, La Bohème is in four acts, but its running time is just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, packed full of gorgeous music and compelling drama. It’s a supreme example of Puccini’s artistry as a composer of Opera.

Anyway, back to the plot. Act II finds Rodolfo and Mimi joining in the party started by Marcello and his buddies. There’s a huge contrast here between the dingy garret in which Act I is set, as this is set in the Latin Quarter of gay Paris (with a few drag queens in this production thrown in to make the point). Marcello gets off with the object of his desire, the coquettish Musetta (Lauren Fagan), and all seems well with the world as we go into the interval.

In Act III we find things have changed. Rodolfo’s love for Mimi has soured and, overcome by jealousy and suspicion, he has left her. Clearly unwell, Mimi wanders around looking for Rodolfo and he hears her coughing. They clearly still love each other, but find it difficult to live with each other. If Opera were Facebook they would both have “It’s complicated” on their status.

The last act finds us back in the garret, Rodolfo and Mimi having separated. But Mimi has been wandering the streets in the freezing cold and turns up, clearly gravely ill. Rodolfo’s friends quickly pawn some meagre possessions and Marcello and Musetta rush out to buy medicine and summon a doctor. They return with the medicine but, before the doctor arrives, Mimi dies.

People say that this is a romantic opera but it’s a pretty bleak story when you think about it. The lovers’ happiness is brief and it all ends in despair and death in surroundings of poverty and squalor. That’s what Opera Verismo is all about. In this production Mimi really does looks ill at the end, making the ending all the more heartbreaking.

All the principals were very good. I thought the voice of Dominick Chenes sounded a little thin at the start and was worried that he might have to force it during the big arias, but he warmed up magnificently. Lauren Fagan was a very sassy as the “tart-with-a heart” Musetta. The other person who deserves a particular mention was the bass Jihoon Kim as Colline, who has a superb voice.

And a word for the production. This revival of Annabel Arden’s design – slightly different from the last time I saw it, with a different case, five years ago – managed to bring fresh elements to what is basically a straightforward interpretation of the Opera. The visual effects, such as the animated snow,  were clever but not intrusive. There was no attempt to translate the action into a different period or location nor was there an attempt to preach about disease as a metaphor for moral failings. In this respect it’s very faithful to what I think Puccini’s intentions were, i.e. to let the audience make their own mind up about what message they want to take away. The only slight departure I spotted was that in Act I Mimi actually blows her own candle out deliberately in order to get Rodolfo to light it again. Methinks she’s a bit more forward than usual in this production.

This was the first performance of this run of La Bohème. If you love Opera and can get to Cardiff, then do go and see it. It’s very special.

P.S. I was a little amused by the image of the skyline of 19th Century Paris projected in front of the curtains before the show started. It did much to set the atmosphere, but I really don’t think those TV aerials should have been there…

 

The Merchant of Venice at Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by telescoper

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Last Friday (30th September 2016) I got another fix of opera in the form of a new Welsh National Opera production of The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikowsky at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay (above; the people in the bottom left of the picture were having an important discussion about the location of the nearest Fish & Chip shop).

The Opera sticks very closely to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, even to the extent that the libretto uses some of the original text verbatim. That creates the opposite problem to that which I mentioned in my review of Verdi’s Macbeth. In Verdi’s case the text was excessively abridged with many memorable passages omitted entirely, but in this case the Opera struggles to under the weight of so many words. It’#s not just that the Opera has to be rather long in order to accommodate so much of the original play,  more that Shakespeare’s verse has a compelling rhythm to it that echoes but also amplifies the cadences of natural English speech. Unless it is done exceptionally well, setting the words to music actually detracts from the poetry rather than adding anything to it. Take for example, Portia’s wonderful speech in the courtroom scene (Act IV of the play; Act III of the opera):

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

These words have music to them in their own right, a music that, frankly, I preferred to what Tchaikowsky added which seemed to distort their proper metre.

I’m not saying that I didn’t like the music; the score is often highly effective. Rigorously atonal – in fact somewhat reminiscent of Alban Berg – it generates great psychological tension and carries considerable emotional force. I just think it was a mistake to take such a literal approach to Shakespeare’s text.

That said, there is a great deal to savour in this production. The staging is extremely well done, with each scene having a completely different look and feel, and the principals sang their roles extremely well. Lester Lynch was a particularly fine Shylock, managing to transcend the stereotypical aspects of his character with a performance of great nobility. The antisemitism of Shakespeare’s play is certainly present in the Opera,  but casting Shylock as a black actor turns it into a more general statement about the evil of prejudice. The play only hints that the relationship between the two men Antonio and Bassanio is more than just a friendship, but the Opera clearly suggests that there is a sexual element to it. Antonio is left alone and distraught at the end, as Bassanio abandons him for Portia, but sympathy for him is limited by his awful behaviour towards Shylock. That suggests (at least to me) that the abuse Antonio directs at Shylock is born of his own internal conflict. At any rate he ends the Opera as he starts it, on a psychiatrist’s couch.

A word must be said about Antonio. The role (for a counter-tenor) was supposed to be sung by Martin Wölfel but he was indisposed by laryngitis. In stepped Feargal Mostyn-Williams at very short notice in what must be an immensely demanding role. I thought he was very good indeed. He held the stage well and though he struggled to project over the orchestra at the start (presumably due to nerves) he grew into the role very well.

This is a production that’s well worth seeing, and I enjoyed it a lot despite the difficulties I tried to explain above. Sadly there were only two performances in Cardiff, so if you want to see it you’ll have to catch it on tour or next summer when it is to be staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

 

Happy 70th Birthday to the “Third Programme”!

Posted in Jazz, Music, Opera, Uncategorized with tags , on September 29, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve just got time for a quick post-prandial post to mark the fact that 70 years ago today, on September 29th 1946, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made its first radio broadcast on what was then called The BBC Third Programme. The channel changed its name in 1970 to BBC Radio 3, but I’m just about old enough to remember a time when it was called the Third Programme; I was only 6 when it changed.

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It was a bold idea to launch a channel devoted to the arts in the depths of post-War austerity and it was perceived by some at the time as being “elitist”. I think some people probably think that of the current Radio 3 too. I don’t see it that way at all. Culture enriches us all, regardless of our background or education, if only we are given access to it. You don’t have to like classical music or opera or jazz, but you can only make your mind up if you have the chance to listen to it and decide for yourself.

My own relationship with Radio 3 started by accident at some point during the 1990s while I was living in London. I was used to listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when I woke up, but one morning when my alarm switched on it was playing classical music. It turned out that there was a strike of BBC news staff so they couldn’t broadcast Today and had instead put Radio 3 on the Radio 4 frequency. I very much enjoyed it to the extent that when the strike was over and Radio 4 reappeared, I re-tuned my receiver to Radio 3. I’ve stayed with it ever since. I can’t bear the Today programme at all, in fact; almost everyone on it makes me angry, which is no way to start the day.

Over the years there have been some changes to Radio 3 that I don’t care for very much – I think there’s a bit too much chatter and too many gimmicks these days (and they should leave that to Classic FM) – but I listen most days, not only in the morning but also in the evening,  especially to the live concert performances every night during the week. Many of these concerts feature standard classical repertoire, but I particularly appreciate the number of performances of new music or otherwise unfamiliar pieces.

I also enjoy Words and Music, which is on Sunday afternoons and Opera on 3, which includes some fantastic performances Live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and which is usually on Saturday evenings. And of course the various Jazz on 3 programmes: Jazz Record Requests, Jazz Line-up, Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz, etc.

It’s not the just the music, though. I think BBC Radio 3 has a very special group of presenters who are not only friendly and pleasant to listen to, but also very knowledgeable about the music. They also have some wonderful names: Petroc Trelawny, Clemency Burton-Hill, and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, to name but a few. There’s also a newsreader whose name I thought, when I first heard it, was Porn Savage.

I feel I’ve found out about so many things through listening to Radio 3, but there’s much more to my love-affair with this channel than that. Some years ago I was quite ill, and among other things suffering very badly from insomnia. Through the Night brought me relief in the form a continuous stream of wonderful music during many long sleepless nights.

I wish everyone at BBC Radio 3 a very happy 70th birthday. Long may you broadcast!

 

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.