Archive for Carlo Rizzi

WNO Tosca

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on February 12, 2018 by telescoper

My current schedule takes me back and forth across the Irish Sea, making it a bit of challenge to take in as many musical events as I’d like to, but I did manage to get to see yesterday’s performance of Tosca at Welsh National Opera. I don’t usually go for afternoon performances, but this was basically my option. Not surprisingly there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre for a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

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 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. The setting is so specific to time and place that it resists being monkeyed about with, done in modern dress, staged in a chip shop or whatever. Thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s production (of which this is a revival) is very firmly of the period and location required. As a longstanding opera bore, I have to admit that I have been on a Tosca pilgrimage and have visited all three locations in Rome. The scenery used in last night’s performance isn’t exactly as the real locations but it definitely evokes them very well.

Floria Tosca (Claire Rutter) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Hector Sandoval), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Mark Doss), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch Tosca and Cavaradossi too. He lusts after Tosca and hates Cavaradossi. 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”.

Hector Sandoval (Cavaradossi) and Claire Rutter (Tosca). Picture credit: WNO.

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 that leads to the second point. Each of the three principals could have been very two-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 is pathetic and vulnerable. He is monstrous, but one is left with the impression that something made him monstrous. And then there’s Tosca, proud and jealous, loving but at the same time capable of violence and spite. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. In this production, she doesn’t just stab him once: she chases him around the room repeatedly plunging the knife into him, then stands over him  as he begs for help. 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!

Top marks for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, who did full justice to Puccini’s magnificent score. Claire Rutter has a fine voice for the role, and I thought Hector Sandoval sang and acted wonderfully. The big numbers in Tosca are quite familiar, but they still sounded fresh and were performed with great feeling. Best of all, Mark Doss has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger. He even got a few pantomime boos at the end.

 

 

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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:

WNO

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!

 

 

I Puritani – Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by telescoper

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!

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Posted in Music with tags , , , on January 3, 2011 by telescoper

The last day of the winter break has arrived, in the form of a bank holiday Monday in lieu of New Year’s Day which this year happened on a Saturday. It has also started snowing again. I’m determined to get all the rest and recuperation I can get before starting back at work so instead of posting anything strenuous I thought I’d put up this wonderful piece of music.

This is the third and undoubtedly the most famous song in Gustav Mahler‘s cycle of five Rückert Lieder, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. Perhaps the best known version of this is the marvellous recording mezzo Dame Janet Baker made in the 1960s with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, which I listen to over and over again. It is also to be heard in a version with piano rather than orchestral accompaniment, and sometimes with male rather than female vocalist. I firmly prefer the orchestral setting, however.

The German text of this poem reads

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

As always with poetry, it’s not easy to translate, but a reasonable English version is

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Although I only did one year of German at school, I think “I have become a stranger to the world” is a better version of the first line; it scans better, at least. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that the poet is celebrating his escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Because it’s about solitude  people tend to assume that it’s a sad song. I don’t think of it like that at all. I’m sure artists, musicians, poets, and even – dare I say it – scientists, all experience times when they’re so focussed on what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. Solitude is then not to do with loneliness or sadness, but with self-fulfilment.

This is what Mahler’s music seems to me to convey anyway. For me it’s one of the most joyful pieces of music he ever wrote, although, as is inevitable with Mahler, whenever there’s radiance you know that darkness is never far away. He seems to know exactly how to trigger the deepest emotional response, by introducing those shadowy undercurrents. Gets me every time.

This performance, which I chanced upon on Youtube,  has  a strong local connection. I don’t know where the performance took place, but the conductor is Carlo Rizzi who was conductor of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera until 2007, and the mezzo soprano vocalist is Katarina Karnéus, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1995 and  performed in Mahler’s Third Symphony in Cardiff last year. There’s just a chance, therefore, that this recording was made in St David’s Hall. Wherever it was, I think this is a lovely performance,  to see as well as hear.

If there is a more beautiful piece of music than this, I’d really love to hear it.

 


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