Archive for the Opera Category

Tosca at the Bord Gáis

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2022 by telescoper

Last night found me for the very first time at Dublin’s splendid Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, for a performance of Tosca by Irish National Opera, a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Bord Gáis means “Gas Board”, by the way, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

It’s been a while since I last went to an Opera and it was a last-minute decision to attend this one, but I heard good things about the opening night on Monday and managed to get a ticket. I’m very glad I did as there was much to enjoy, with some quite original variations on a very familiar story.

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 set 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.

Most productions of Tosca I have seen stick rigorously to a specific sense of time and place. In this one, directed by Michael Gieleta, the locations are suggested rather than reproduced directly and the costumes and interior design are generally 20th Century, with some sly references. The villainous Spoletta, for example, a police agent, is clearly dressed as a Jesuit. The shepherd boy in Act III appears as an angel, complete with wings, whose ghostly presence leads the prisoners on to their impending execution.

There is also some very ingenious staging, with a rotating set showing the torture scene in Act II while Scarpia and Tosca do their thing. The revolving structure also provides a very interesting alternative view of the end of Act III. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it for others…

Floria Tosca (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, soprano) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Dimitri Pittas, tenor), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner Cesare Angelotti (John Molloy, bass) while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Tómas Tómasson, bass-baritone), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch (in different ways) both Tosca and Cavaradossi: he lusts after the former and hates the latter.

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”, though in this production we don’t actually see her jump…

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 after Scarpia dies with Tosca preparing to make her getaway we hear, slower and deep down among the strings, Scarpia’s motif yet again. Even in death we feel he is still present…

Each of the three principal roles could have been very one-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 seems vulnerable; he is trapped by the same system he exploits. And then there’s the glamorous and loving, but not entirely likeable, Tosca who haughty and jealous, and at times spiteful. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. 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!

As for this production, I thought the principals were excellent: Dimitri Pittas seemed to be straining a bit in Act I but recovered and sang beautifully in Act III. Scarpia was suitably villainous and got a few pantomime boos at the end. A special mention must be made of the young shepherd (Joe Dwyer, treble) who was outstanding in a very difficult part for a young singer. Music director was Nil Venditti who bounced across the stage at the end to take the applause from a very appreciative audience.

There are still two performances of this production, on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th.

Il Mio Tesoro – John McCormack

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on December 19, 2021 by telescoper

The aria Il Mio Tesoro Intanto from Act II of Mozart’s great Opera Don Giovanni is widely regarded as a test piece for Operatic tenors because of its demanding mix of long flowing lines, big leaps and florid coloratura ornamentation. The other day I heard a performance by the great Irish tenor John McCormack which, despite being recorded over a hundred years ago (in 1916) completely blew me away. I thought I’d share it here.

John McCormack made over 800 records in his lifetime, the vast majority of them Irish songs and ballads that found a huge audience not only in Ireland but also in the Irish diaspora in the United States of America; this part of his career was extremely lucrative making him a millionaire. His first love was the Opera: a lyric tenor of the highest quality, his career overlapped with that of the great Enrico Caruso and the two became great friends after McCormack moved to the United States and became a regular at the Metropolitan Opera. It was Caruso who made the first ever million-selling record (Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci in 1902) and perhaps that’s what persuaded McCormack to embark on a recording career.

Before the 1920s gramophone recordings were entirely acoustic, made by a process exactly the reverse of a gramophone player. Musicians and singers would play into a horn at the sharp end of which was a needle that could leave an impression on the recording medium. In the early days the recording would be made on a wax cylinder, but this was soon replaced by plastic or acetate discs. It wasn’t possible to make recordings longer than a few minutes using this method.

Here’s an example of an early recording session showing what it was like. The chap with the moustache is Sir Edward Elgar:

Given this sort of arrangement it is no surprise that the sound of the Orchestra of the Met is muffled and distorted on the following recording. Almost certainly McCormack would have been standing right in front of the horn so his sizeable form would have acted as a kind of baffle. When I think of these old records it always seems a wonder that you can hear anything at all.

Despite the limitations of the recording technology the crystal clarity of McCormack’s voice and his superb control shine through. I listen to quite a lot of old jazz records made in a similar way so my ears are perhaps unusually forgiving but I think this is one of the greatest versions of this aria that I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard quite a few. I hope you enjoy it too.

P.S. John McCormack was born in Athlone, which is about 100km due west of Maynooth.

Trustan with Usolde

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2020 by telescoper

It is, I think, fairly well known that physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired to pick the name quark for the name of a type of subatomic particle by a passage from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

What is perhaps less well known is the identity of “Muster Mark” in that quote. In fact it is King Mark of Cornwall, husband of Queen Iseult in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The Iseult in that legend is Irish. She has has an affair with Tristan, nephew of King Mark, with tragic consequences. This legend appears in many literary forms including, most famously, Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. It also comes up frequently in Finnegans Wake including this passage on the same page (in the edition I have) as the Muster Mark quote above:

That song sang seaswans.
The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel
and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold
when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

See how Joyce plays with the substitution of “u” for “i” here as in “Muster”. Either that or the “I” key on his typewriter didn’t work properly. Or he had fat fingers and kept hitting the wrong key; U and I are next door on the keyboard.

Incidentally there is a small village in Dublin called Chapelizod which is where a church was built dedicated to Queen Iseult. Whether there is any real connection between this place and the historical Iseult is very doubtful.

Now, where was I. Oh yes. Back to Opera.

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing.

Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless I do think Tristan and Isolde works very well on the radio – nothing very much happens on stage anyway (especially in Act II) so you can just let the music work it’s magic.

The reason for all this rambling is that there is a special broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on RTÉ Lyric FM. This performance, recorded in 2012, features as Isolde the celebrated dramatic soprano Miriam Murphy who very sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Tonight’s programme is a tribute to her memory. I believe Miriam Murphy is the only Irish soprano to have sung the role of Isolde. I’ve heard a few clips from it and her voice sounds amazing.

The Opera is preceded on the radio by a documentary about the production, the first in Ireland for 50 years and the first by a brand new company based in Ireland. I think James Joyce would have approved.

So that’s my Saturday evening sorted out!

Update: I listened to the broadcast and it is an astonishingly wonderful performance by Miriam Murphy.

The people who do things and what they do

Posted in Art, Cricket, Football, Opera, Television with tags , on July 19, 2020 by telescoper

It’s a tough lesson to learn in life that the people you admire or idolize for their contribution in a particular arena (whether that be sport, art, science or something else) turn out to be people you can’t stand in terms of their character or political views.

You have to separate, for example, having a high regard for Ian Botham’s cricketing prowess from having a high regard for his personal character. In fact I can think of few sportspeople whose company I’d enjoy socially.

The same goes in many other spheres. Richard Feynman was a truly great physicist but I’ve never bought into the personality cult surrounding him. In fact I doubt I would have liked him very much at all if we’d ever met in person. They say you should never meet your heroes. They’re right.

Another example is Richard Wagner, a brilliant composer but really horrible man, who brings us to this clip from the end of Twilight of the Gods (the last episode of Series 7 of Inspector Morse, first broadcast in 1993).

I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen it but it involves a famous opera singer, Gladys Probert, who visits Oxford to perform and receive an honorary degree. On the way to the ceremony she is shot, but was she the intended victim?

Opera-loving Morse is a huge admirer of Gladys Probert but in the course of his investigation he uncovers some unpleasant truths about her private life. He solves the crime but the case leaves him dispirited.

Here is the ending. John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Kevin Whateley is Detective Sergeant Lewis.

Predictive Blogging

Posted in Covid-19, Cricket, Opera, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 27, 2020 by telescoper

News has emerged that on 14th April 2020 Dominic Cummings doctored an old blog post to make it look like he had predicted a coronavirus outbreak. Given the indisputable fact that Mr Cummings is a career liar this should not in itself come as a surprise. What might surprise a few people is that this episode reveals that this self-styled genius is must in reality be rather stupid if he thought he could get away with hiding such a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Still, the truth obviously no longer matters in post-Brexit Britain so he probably won’t face any serious consequences.

I, of course would, never add things to old blog posts to make myself look clever.

I would, however, like to point out just a few of the various uncannily accurate predictions I have made in the course of my almost twelve years of blogging.

For example, in this September 2009 review of a performance of La Traviata by Welsh National Opera I wrote:

My love of Italian opera makes me regret even more that the UK will be be leaving the European Union in 2020.

And in this account of the May 2015 England versus New Zealand Test Match at Lord’s you will find:

… it was still quite gloomy and dark. My mood was sombre, thinking about Donald Trump’s forthcoming victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections.

My prescience is not only limited to politics, however. In my 2013 post about the Queen’s Birthday Honours List you will read:

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected.

You see now that Niels Bohr wasn’t quite right when he said “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Sometimes it’s the past that’s hardest to predict.

 

Fidelio in Dublin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening found me once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance of Beethoven’s only Opera, Fidelio, performed by Lyric Opera Ireland together with the young musicians of Sinfonua conducted by Tony Purser. The event was, of course, part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations that will be taking place all this year in concert halls around the world. The National Concert Hall isn’t really designed for opera, so the orchestra had to squeeze into the space between the front row of the stalls and the stage. I was a few rows back, but I could still read the scores on the desks!

A synopsis of the Opera is as follows.

Leonore (Sínead Campbell-Wallace) has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaole, Rocco (Mikhail Svetlov), of the state prison in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan (Samuel Sakker). To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Rachel Croash), has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (Patrick Hyland) even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman. Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro (Gyula Nagy), learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death, having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals her true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando (Felix Kemp), arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, specifically with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. There are no less than four published versions of the overture. Last night we heard the standard one often called Leonore No. 3, but more often simply known as Fidelio.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken or declaimed rather than sung). In this performance the spoken dialogue was in English while the sung part was in the original German. There were surtitles too, so the plot was easy to follow. Given the constraints of the National Concert Hall the set was simple but nonetheless effective, and the a mixture of 19th century and modern dress. Part of the chorus performed from the choir stalls behind the stage. In the first act they were dressed as prisoners but during the interval they changed into ordinary everday clothes, a device I found very effective. A story of wrongful imprisonment is as relevant today as it was in Beethoven’s time. This point was emphasized near the end of Act I when the prisoners are briefly allowed out from their cells: children in modern dress mingled with them, holding photographs of people of all races and generations who have been unjustly taken away.

I thought the principals were outstanding. Sínead Campbell-Wallace (soprano) was a superb Leonore, both vocally and dramatically, Samuel Sakker (tenor) impressed, Mikhail Svetlov (bass) was in fine voice throughout, and (perhaps the pick of them all) Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy was a wonderfully sinister Don Pizarro.

So far so good, but there were some less than ideal things about this production, chiefly the intonation. For many people the highlight of this Opera is the wonderful Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust….”) when the inmates of the gaol are temporally released to get some fresh air. They staggered onto the stage, eyes blinking at the light, but their incarceration had obviously robbed some of  them of a sense of pitch and the started horrifically out of tune. From time to time the orchestra – especially the brass – also struggled to find the correct pitch, producing some painfully jarring moments.

It’s hard to believe that it has been the best part of a decade since I first saw Fidelio, in a production by Welsh National Opera. Both that one and this one offered much to enjoy, but I still have to see a production that really does this work justice.

R.I.P. Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 10, 2020 by telescoper

I was deeply saddened last night to hear of the death at the age of 84 of legendary operatic soprano Mirella Freni who belonged to the generation of stars that included Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto and Maria Callas. Freni’s light and elegant voice was perfectly suited to lyric roles, especially Mozart and Puccini, although in the later years of her long career she did broaden her repertoire considerably. For me (and I guess many others) her signature role was as Mimi in La Bohème to which she brought not only lovely singing, but a wonderful tenderness and warmth to the character. As a small tribute here she is in that role with the great Luciano Pavarotti (who was born in the same town as Freni, Modena).

R.I.P. Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

Dinner with Wagner

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2019 by telescoper

Before dinner with the RAS Club on Friday evening I was looking through the display cabinets at the Athenaeum and saw this, the record of a dinner involving a member and guests on 23rd May 1877. The member was electrical engineer, businessman and Fellow of the Royal Society Carl Wilhelm Siemens and among is guests was Richard Wagner:

Dinner started early and was evidently a lengthy affair, much like Wagner’s operas!

That reminds me of a famous review of one of Wagner’s operas by a critic who clearly wasn’t a fan.

Parsifal is an Opera by Richard Wagner that starts at half past five. Three hours later, you look at your watch and it’s quarter to six.

P.S. There is a photograph taken of Wagner (whose 64th birthday was on 22nd May) during his visit to London in 1877:

Dido’s Lament – Jessye Norman

Posted in Opera with tags , , on October 1, 2019 by telescoper

I found out this morning that the wonderful Jessye Norman passed away yesterday at the age of 74. It’s impossible to post an adequate tribute in words to such a stellar artist so I’ll just post a clip of her, not in one of the big operatic number by Wagner or Strauss with which she was probably most strongly associated, but in a piece from a different era altogether:  Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell. It seems to be an apt choice at this sad time.

R.I.P. Jessye Norman (1945-2019).

 

The Magic Flute at the Gaiety Theatre

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 25, 2019 by telescoper

Last night went for the first time to the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by Irish National Opera in conjunction with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It was my first INO performance and my first visit to the Gaiety Theatre (although I’m sure it won’t be the last of either of those). I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the Magic Flute but I hope this won’t be the last either!

The Gaiety Theatre is quite compact, which engenders a more intimate atmosphere than is often experienced at the Opera. The music being provided by a small-ish chamber orchestra also suited the venue, but more importantly gave a fresh and sprightly feeling to Mozart’s wonderful score. You would think it would be hard to make Mozart sound stodgy, but some orchestras seem to manage it. Not last night though.

The scenery is rather simple, as is needed for touring Opera playing in relatively small venues. The stage directions of the Magic Flute are in any case so outlandish that it’s virtually impossible to enact them precisely according to instructions.

For example, what is the set designer supposed to do with this?

The scene is transformed into two large mountains; one with a thundering waterfall, the other belching out fire; each mountain has an open grid, through which fire and water may be seen; where the fire burns the horizon is coloured brightly red, and where the water is there lies a black fog.

This production takes the sensible approach of leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience though that does mean, for example, that there is no dragon…

The costumes are a different matter. The hero Tamino begins in the drab clothes of a working man of the 19th century, as do the three ladies that he encounters early on in Act I. The enigmatic Sarastro and his followers are however dressed as the gentry of a similar period, and are accompanied by a chorus of domestic servants. As Tamino works his way into the Brotherhood he becomes progressively gentrified in manner and in clothing. A central idea of the Opera is that of enlightenment values prevailing over superstition, but under the surface oppression remains, both in the form imposed by property-owners on the working poor, but also in the misogynistic behaviour of Sarastro and others, and the racist stereotyping of the villainous and lustful `Moor’, Monastatos. This production is sung in the original German, and there were gasps from the audience when they saw some of the surtitles in English. Although Magic Flute is on one level a hugely enjoyable comic fantasy, it also holds up a mirror to attitudes of Mozart’s time – and what you see in it is not pleasant, especially when you realize that many of these are still with us.

Importantly, however, this undercurrent does not detract from the basic silliness which I believe is the real key to this Opera. It’s fundamentally daft, but it succeeds because it’s daft in exactly the same way that real life is.

In last night’s performance the two fine leads were Anna Devin was Pamina (soprano) and Nick Pritchard Tamino (tenor). The excellent Gavan Ring provided suitable comic relief and a fine baritone voice to boot. Kim Sheehan (soprano) as the Queen of the Night doesn’t have the biggest voice I’ve ever heard, but she sang her extraordinarily difficult coloratura arias (one of them including a top `F’) with great accuracy and agility and brought a considerable pathos to her role instead of making it the pantomime villain you sometimes find. Sarastro was Lukas Jakobski (bass), memorable not only for his superb singing way down in the register, but for his commanding physical presence. Well over 2 metres tall, he towered over the rest of the cast. I think he’s the scariest Sarastro I’ve ever seen!

And finally I should congratulate the three boys: Nicholas O’Neill, Seán Hughes and Oran Murphy. These roles are extremely demanding for young voices and the three who performed last night deserved their ovation at the end.

The last performances in this run are today (Saturday 25th May, matinée and evening) so this review is too late to make anyone decide to go and see it but last night’s was recorded for RTÉ Lyric Fm and will be broadcast at a future date.