Archive for the Opera Category

WNO Eugene Onegin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WNO Khovanshchina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dawn over the Moscow River

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

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

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

The Shrinking Seasons at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by telescoper

I was excited to receive the brochure shown above for the 2017/18 season at Welsh National Opera, but although it contains some very exciting things there are also many signs that times are getting very tough at WNO.

This October sees the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution so it’s no surprise that the Autumn season has a distinctive Russian flavour. There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mussorgky’s Khovanschina and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Yes, I know Janáček wasn’t Russian – but `From the House of the Dead’ is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was…

That looks like an interesting season, but there are only two performances of From the House of the Dead in Cardiff (both of which I think I’ll have to miss) and only three each of Eugene Onegin and Khovanschina. There’s also an additional performance of Johan Strauss’s light operetta Die Fledermaus, which is one of this year’s productions.

Spring 2018 sees performances of Puccini’s Tosca, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Mozart’s Don Giovanni which again looks like a nice season. I’ve seen the productions of Tosca and Don Giovanni before, but won’t mind seeing them again.

But the real disappointment is that there’s no Summer season at all. Austerity has clearly bitten very hard. For year’s I’ve been celebrating my birthday (which falls in June) by going to a WNO performance in Cardiff but I guess next year I’ll just have to do something else….

Der Rosenkavalier at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by telescoper

I’m in London attending a cosmology meeting (of which more, perhaps, anon) but I couldn’t resist posting a quick review of yesterday’s birthday treat: the first performance of a new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. It wasn’t exactly a first night as such because it was a 3pm start. In fact it was still daylight when I got home..

Der Rosenkavalier is superficially a comic opera but it also moments of great depth and poignancy, dealing with the passage of time and the nature of love. The libretto contains some lovely passages, such as this:

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
Aber dann auf einmal, da spürt man nichts als sie.
Sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie,
im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
in meinen Schläfen fliesst sie.
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder,
lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.

Most of the comedy is supplied by an intrigue involving the boorish Baron Ochs, played brilliantly by bass Brindley Sherrat, who wishes to marry the innocent Sophie (largely to acquire the property of Sophie’s father). The Baron engages dashing young Octavian to deliver a ceremonial silver rose to Sophie as a wedding gift. Octavian arrives with the gift but falls in love at first sight with Sophie and his feelings are reciprocated. When the Baron turns out to be the horrible git that he is, Octavian engineers a plot to discredit him, rescue Sophie from a potentially disastrous marriage and claim her for himself. The cunning plan, which proves successful, involves Octavian dressing as a maid in order to catch the Baron in flagrante.

It’s worth mentioning that the part of 17-year old Octavian is played by a female singer – in this production the excellent Lucia Cervoni – who at one point has to be a girl playing a boy playing a girl, rather like Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. Sounds silly? Well, it is but it was beautifully done and gloriously funny.

Octavian (right) presents Sophie with the silver rose..

Octavian is a `trouser role’ but in this production the character begins with trousers off, having a bit of rumpy-pumpy with the Marschallin (played by the wonderful Rebecca Evans), who is much older than Octavian. At the start of the Opera they are in a passionate relationship, but the Marschallin is conscious of the passage of time and that her relationship with Octavian can’t last. At the end of Act I, she points out to Octavian that their relationship can’t go on and he storms out, shortly to meet young Sophie (in Act II).

In this production the Marschallin is often accompanied on stage by the silent and solitary figure of an old lady, who it turns out is a representation of herself in later life. It’s a clever device and would have been even more effective had the old lady not reminded me so much of Madge Allsop

The staging is in period, and for the most part pleasantly straightforward but there is a rather gimmicky element of steadily encroaching sand, presumably ‘the sands of time’ referred to in the last line of the excerpt quoted above. I felt this was neither necessary nor convincing. The theme of time’s inexorable progress is clear enough. There’s no need to labour it.

Near the end of Act III, after much coming and going, and the odious Baron’s entrapment and humiliation, the Marschallin  is left alone with her former lover Octavian and his intended bride Sophie, we arrive at the Opera’s emotional high point, and indeed one of the most sublime moments in the entire operatic repertoire, the sumptuous trio Hab Mir’s Gelobt,  in which the Marschallin comes to terms with the loss of Octavian and blesses the relationship between him and Sophie. This is one of the pieces of music that really affects me very powerfully, and I am not too proud to admit that I did let go a tear or two. Maybe more. Not because it is especially sad, but because it’s so very beautiful the way the three voice blend together and with the orchestra.

I don’t give star ratings but from a vocal point of view this is definitely one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on the Opera stage. All four principals: Rebecca Evans, Lucia Cervoni, Brindley Sherratt and Louise Alder (Sophie) rose to the challenges of their roles in great style. All were superb so it would be wrong to single out one, but I will say that I was surprised to discover that this was Rebecca Evan’s debut as the Marschallin – she was just about perfect in the role.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera directed by Tomas Hanus played Strauss’s lush score with great precision and passion,  holding together a wonderful afternoon at the Wales Millennium Centre. An altogether excellent way to spend a birthday afternoon!

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)