Archive for the Opera Category

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.

I Puritani – Welsh National Opera

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

After spending yesterday in Cardiff at an External Advisory Panel meeting for the School of Physics & Astronomy, I’m now back on Sussex University campus to greet this year’s new new intake of students who begin arriving this weekend. Now, in between two Welcome Events this afternoon I just have time to do a quick review of last night’s entertainment in Cardiff. The meeting in Cardiff had been in my diary for a while but I only realised last week that Friday night was the opening performance of a new Welsh National Opera production of I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini. Fortunately, I managed to get a last-minute ticket. I’m really glad I did because it was wonderful.

I Puritani is set in England during the Civil War and revolves around Elvira (soprano, sung by Rosa Feola), who is a Protestant, and in love with Arturo (tenor, Barry Banks), who is Catholic. The trouble is that Elvira’s father has already promised her hand in marriage to Riccardo (David Kempster). The thought of being unable to marry Arturo sends Elvira into a deep depression but, seeing this, her father relents and gives permission for her to marry her true love. She responds to this news in rapturous fashion; her future happiness seems assured.

Unfortunately events intervene. Arturo takes pity on a woman suspected of being a Stuart spy and about to be condemned to death. In fact it turns out that the “spy” is Queen Henrietta Maria, widow of Charles I. Arturo struggles with the conflict between love and duty (a familiar operatic theme) then, on the eve of his wedding, he leaves in order to take Henrietta Maria away to safety. The shock of discovering that her beloved has gone deranges Elvira’s mind, and the classic Bel Canto “Mad Scene” ensues. Arturo does return, eventually, but not until Act 3 by which time he has already been sentenced to death for treason and Elvira is beyond help. Riccardo, encouraged by a mob, prepares to carry out the execution. A herald appears, announcing victory for the Protestant side in the Civil War and declaring a general pardon on all Royalist prisoners. It is too late to save Arturo, although Elvira’s madness has deepened to such an extent she doesn’t even realised her would-be husband is dead.

That brief synopsis of the plot doesn’t do any justice to what I think is a consummate piece of music drama, and certainly one of the heights of the bel canto period. There’s a superb balance of the different vocal combinations and wonderfully expressive music throughout. There are trademark bel canto coloratura passages, but it never feels forced or showy in this opera. The momentum never flags, either. It might surprise those who don’t like bel canto opera that, for example, Richard Wagner was a particular admirer of Vicenzo Bellini. Incidentally, I Puritani was Bellini’s last Opera; he died suddenly in 1835, at the age of just 34, the year it was first performed. It was acclaimed by the critics way back then, and is a fitting swansong for a truly great operatic composer.

The new production is initially set in the Northern Ireland of 1970s, with Elvira dressed in a blue twin set reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. The protestants were depicted as Ulsterman, complete with Orange regalia and bowler hats. But there is a surprise in store. As Elvira begans to lose her mind, an identically dressed (mute) doppelganger appears on stage. The real Elvira then leaves to return almost immediately dressed in 17th Century attire. The Orangemen also reappear dressed in the black clothes with white ruffs and cuffs of Puritans. Not only does this make a point about the three hundred years of sectarian madness in Northern Ireland, but it also manifests Elvira’s depersonalisation, i.e. her detachment from reality. The portrayal of Elvira’s madness in this Opera is sympathetic but unflinching, and deeply moving.

The principals were all excellent, but I can’t help singling out Rosa Feola, who sang and acted beautifully, and Barry Banks who tackled the immensely demanding tenor part with real gusto. The WNO chorus were magnificent, as they usually are in fact. Conductor Carlo Rizzi had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on top form too.

All in all, a wonderful night at the Opera. Congratulations to WNO for having the courage to put on this rare masterpiece. This is as good as anything I’ve seen at the Wales Millennium Centre, and that’s a pretty strong endorsement Do go and see it if you can!

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.


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