Archive for the Opera Category

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.

Moses und Aron

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by telescoper

Last night I found myself once again in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, the bank holiday weekend giving me enough breathing space to head back to Wales for a short break and take in an Opera.

As it turned out there was a rare treat on the menu: the first night of a new Welsh National Opera production of Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg. It was well worth the trip from Brighton.

Schoenberg had only completed two of the three acts by the time of his death in 1951 so the Opera is unfinished. On the other hand the Biblical story of the Exodus is so familiar that it doesn’t matter too much that some is missing. But although the plot is well known the Opera gives it several new dimensions.

Moses is chosen by God to lead his people from captivity but he is deeply troubled by the difficulty of this task because of his old age and the ‘clumsiness of his tongue’. Moses’ brother Aron has a much easier way with words (and pictures) so they join forces and lead the Jews from captivity into the wilderness.

Moses has deep reservations about Aron’s freedom with the use of images and other gimmicks, with good reason. In Act 2 while Moses is away receiving the Ten Commandments and whatnot, leaving Aron in charge, Aron permits all kind of lewd and ungodly behaviour, all starting with his use of images to depict God. Upon Moses’ return all that comes to an end, but it has exposed an irreconcilable disagreement between the two brothers about what if anything of the divine can ever be expressed in words. Moses’ concept of God is absolute and unknowable, requiring faith rather than understanding; Aron is content to use the Method of Images.

I’m not qualified to go into the theology behind all this, but it did have some resonance with me as a scientist. How much of the truth of creation do we capture with our words and equations, or are they just images?

Anyway, back to the Opera. The staging was modern, Act I was a lecture room or conference centre. Moses appeared as an ageing professor and Aron as a sort of Teaching Assistant. The Israelites were depicted as rowdy and occasionally violent students. The set changed slightly in Act 2 to resemble a movie theatre, implying that Aron’s images were cinematic, presumably violent and pornographic.

Moses was played by the legendary Sir John Tomlinson. His deeply sonorous voice and compelling stage presence provided a perfect focus for the production. Aron was Mark Le Brocq, whose fine performance was all the more remarkable because he was understudy for Rainer Trost who was unwell; to pick up such a challenging part at a few hours’ notice can not be easy and he did wonderfully well. As always, the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were also excellent.

Schoenberg’s music for Moses un Aron is resolutely serialist, which will no doubt put some people off. I found it gripping and starkly beautiful, performed with consummate artistry by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs.

All in all, yet another wonderful evening of music drama courtesy of WNO. Only two performances of Moses und Aron were planned for Cardiff this season; the other is next Friday (30th May). I’m glad that the Wales Millennium Centre was nearly full, as I hope WNO will continue putting on rare and challenging music like this. Unfortunately it seems the Arts Council have other ideas, and have just cut their grant to WNO. Fewer new productions and more revivals are in store from now on.

Victor Borge at the Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on November 20, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today as I’ve got a lot to do before this afternoon’s meeting of Senate. It’s such a cold and miserable day I thought it would be an idea to post this which I bookmarked some time ago but have never got round to posting. If you enjoy it half as much as I did then I enjoyed it twice as much as you…

Elektra

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2013 by telescoper

I seem to have spent more time in London than in Brighton over the last week, and on Saturday I was in the Big Smoke again, for a Night at the Opera. This was a trip I’ve been looking forward to for some time, because it was made possible by the good folks of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University: when I left at the end of January this year they presented me with a gift voucher for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which I’ve only just around to using. So before going on, let me take the opportunity express my gratitude for such a lovely gift!

The Opera I went to see was Elektra by Richard Strauss, in a revival of Charles Edwards’s production that first ran in 2003. Elektra is a complex story (geddit?) set in ancient Mycenae, whose ruling class is gripped by a terrible family feud. The Opera begins with Elektra deranged with grief because of the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra. She resolves to take revenge on her mother and her allies. Her hopes are initially thwarted when her sister Chrysothemis refuses to help and she hears of the death of her brother Orestes. However, Orestes is not dead; he returns to the Palace and, together with a companion, goes on a bloody rampage. The final scenes see the stage covered with dead bodies and the murderers drenched in blood. Elektra rejoices that her revenge is complete, but the fulfilment of her goal leaves her with nothing left to live for; the collapses and dies.

That’s what you go to the Opera for, a happy ending!

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Elektra is an opera in one Act, so it runs for about two hours without an interval. Christine Goerke was absolutely outstanding as Elektra, as was Iain Paterson as Orestes. The music by Richard Strauss is full of contrasts: at times dark and brooding, but at others with a radiant beauty. Those extremes represent the psychological extremes of the story: Elektra’s obsession with revenge is a distorted reflection of her love for her father. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Christopher Willis, standing in for Andris Jansons who was ill, added excellent colour and dynamics to the action on stage.

With all the corpses coming back to life in bloodstained costumes, the curtain call looked the Zombie Apocalypse had started, but we managed to escape and made it to an excellent Italian restaurant in time for a splendid supper followed by too much grappa. I didn’t get back to Brighton until late this afternoon…

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