Archive for the Opera Category

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.

 

Cav/Pag and WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2016 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Brighton after a short break either side of my nth birthday (where n→∞). As is traditional on such occasions I spent the evening of the day in question at the Wales Millennium Centre for a night at the Opera:

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On the bill for Saturday night were Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, two short operas written (respectively) by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Both works are in the verismo tradition of late 19th Century Italian opera and have central themes of love, jealousy, betrayal revenge and murder. So idea fare for a birthday treat!

The “Cav/Pag” package is quite a familiar pairing to opera goers. They weren’t actually written to be performed together, though it is believed that Leoncavallo wrote his piece Pagliacci in response to the success of Cavalleria Rusticana. The compositional style and orchestration are not dissimilar and often the principals are played by the same singers. The latter was the case with Saturday’s production, at least in terms of the two male roles: Gwyn Hughes Jones (shown below as Canio in Pagliacci; he also sang Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana) sang both tenor parts, while David Kempster (baritone) played Alfio (Cav) and Tonio (Pag). Both were excellent throughout.

Pagliacci.GwynHughesJones(Canio).Photocredit-BillCooper1244a

These two productions of this combo differ very much in their look and feel. Cavalleria Rusticana is beautifully staged, in a conventional 19th Century rural Italian setting. The lighting is particularly impressive: the opening looks like a scene from a painting by a Grand Master. The excellent chorus of Welsh National Opera is very much to the fore, especially in the famous Easter Hymn, and the principal soprano Camilla Roberts sang the role of Santuzza with great depth of expression. Carlo Rizzi conducted the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

Pagliacci is given a more modern setting – costumes were generally around the 1950s – but still set in Italy. The set is much plainer and the lighting harsher. The chorus has less to do in terms of singing, but provides colour and movement to the drama. Although the two male principals were good I felt the cast overall was weaker. Meeta Raval (Nedda) sang her part well enough, and got some good laughs in the moments of comedy, but she didn’t have the emotional depth needed to make her part really come alive. Gyula Nagy (as Nedda’s lover Silvio) also sang well enough, but really needs to take some acting lessons..

The big set-piece in Pagliacci is Vesti La Giubba, a powerfully emotional tenor ara which never fails to move. Enrico Caruso’s version of this was the hit record of its day.

Although there were some shortcomings it was still a very enjoyable evening of music drama. Indeed it was the last night in Cardiff for this season, Welsh National Opera’s 70th. The company’s debut when it gave its first performance – as an amateur organisation – on 15th April 1946, was a double bill of Cavalleria Rustica and Pagliacci

I’d therefore like to end by wishing Welsh National Opera a very happy birthday and send my deepest thanks for providing me with so many hours of pleasure through their performance. Long may they continue!

 

 

Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , on May 6, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s something to end the week with: a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.

Akhnaten at ENO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2016 by telescoper

Having had a very stressful time at work over the last few days I decided on the spur of the moment to treat myself to a night at the Opera. The hottest tickets in London right now are for English National Opera’s new production of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, but I managed to get one for Thursday night’s performance. I’m so glad I did, as it really lived up to the the reviews.

The Opera Akhnaten, which had its world premiere in 1983, is based on a real historical figure, Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt over 3300 years ago. Act I begins with the funeral rites of his father Amenhotep III, his son’s installation as Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and the beginning of his 17-year reign alongside his wife Nefertiti.

Roughly five years into his rule, however, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and set up a new, monotheistic religion, in which the Aten (the disk of the Sun) represented the supreme divine influence. Not content with that, he decided to up sticks from the city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) and found a new city called Amarna in the desert. Act II is set in the Amarna period. It seems that, although Akhnaten had revolutionary ideas about religion, the costs of establishing this new way of life, and the resentment it caused among advocates of the old order, put strain on the kingdom of Egypt. In Act III we find Akhnaten and his family in a state of total detachment from the reality of the disintegration of his empire. Ailing and  beset by hostile forces, Akhnaten eventually dies.

After Akhnaten’s death the Amarna project was abandoned, as was the new religion, and the 18th Dynasty resumed with the enthronment of Akhnaten’s son, a young boy by the name of Tutankhamun. Very little remains of the City of Amarna and there seems to have been a systematic attempt to eradicate Akhnaten from historical memory. One suspects that the priests of the old religion played a not inconsiderable role in these developments.

But  Glass’s Akhnaten is more of a reflection or meditation on this extraordinary period than an attempt to depict it via a traditional historical narrative. His minimalist score also challenges the conventions of grand opera. The music develops only incrementally and the actors move in a correspondingly stylised fashion. Each act consists of a set of dreamlike tableaux mixing up the archaeological elements of the story with references to the modern world. In the first Act, for example, the funerary rites of Amenhotep IV involve characters in both ancient and modern dress to emphasize that death has been, and remains, a mystery for all cultures and civilisations.

It’s obviously an enormous challenge to bring such a work to the stage, but this production (developed in conjunction with the theatre company Improbable) rose to that challenge with great imagination. To counter the sense of stasis generated by the music, for example, there was a liberal influsion of brilliantly executed and extremely kinetic juggling. I knew there was going to be juggling  before the performance and had worried that it might be distracting, or even just a gimmick. In fact I think the juggling worked extremely well not only in the context of the opera but also in the context of history; some of the earliest depictions of juggling are from ancient Egypt. The costumes and lighting add even more to the spectacular visual  experience.

I don’t like all of Philip Glass’s music but I do think that Akhnaten is a masterpiece of minimalism. It’s full of subtle and interesting ideas but also extremely accessible, and it creates a strange hypnotic atmosphere which goes perfectly with this staging. The orchestra played the music well, though I felt the brass section could have played with a bit more “bite”, especially in the first Act. The ENO chorus was in excellent voice, as were all the principals: soprano Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother) and mezzo Emma Carrington as Nefertiti (Akhnaten’s wife) both sang extremely their demanding parts with great poise.

But I have to make special mention of Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten. He makes his first appearance on stage in Act I completely naked, walking slowly as if in a trance across a gallery and down the stairs in centre stage, and is then dressed in the garb of a Pharoah. His appearance then – slim, athletic, definitely masculine, and I have to say not inconsiderably sexy – contrasts with his increasingly androgynous appearance later on. But it  is his stage presence and the truly remarkable quality of his singing that I will remember.

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Akhnaten attempts to commune with the Aten. Picture credit: Guardian

Despite all I have written about the juggling and other aspects of the staging, for me the most powerful scene of the Opera is the last scene of Act II which is effective primarily for its simplicity. Here Akhnaten sings a longish aria in the form of Hymn to the Aten, which is based on an ancient text but bearing striking resemblance to Psalm 104 (a point underlined when the chorus sings Psalm 104, in Biblical Hebrew, offstage afterwards).This is the only part of the text sung in English; the rest is in a mixture of Aramaic, Akkadian and Hebrew. Constanzo’s rendition of the Hymn was stunningly beautiful, the clarity of his voice giving it a childlike sense of wonder. Akhnaten then walks slowly up a staircase in front of a representation of the Aten (above), then turns towards it and reaches out with both arms in an attempt to touch it, but he can’t reach it. He turns to face the audience, a desolate expression on his face, and the curtain falls on Act II.

That moment is so poignant because it spells out the universal nature of Akhnaten’s tragedy. His downfall seems inevitable from that point. He tries, as we all do in one way or another, and at some time or another, to commune with something beyond human existence. Inevitably, he fails, and his obsession costs him not only his kingdom, but also his life.