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.Follow @telescoper
Archive for the Opera Category
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.
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.Follow @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).
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.
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!Follow @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)Follow @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!Follow @telescoper