Archive for Giuseppe Verdi

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.

Di Provenza

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 1, 2012 by telescoper

It’s a cold and gloomy morning as befitting the first of February, so I thought you might appreciate a touch of the warmth of the South of France. This is Germont’s Aria Di Provenza il mar, il suol from La Traviata by Giuseppi Verdi. The recording – made, incredibly, in 1907 – provides a rare chance to hear the magnificent baritone of the legendary Titta Ruffo whose nickname, appropriately enough, was Voce del Lione “Voice of the Lion”. Despite the limitations of the recording, which required the aria to be cut down to fit within 3 minutes, this is still a stunning performance which makes most modern-day baritones sound like a wet weekend. If you listen carefully right at the end you’ll hear someone say “bravo”…

Verdi’s Requiem

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on July 18, 2010 by telescoper

Just back from this evening’s Welsh Prom at St David’s Hall which featured Verdi’s Requiem performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales together with the Cardiff Ardwyn Singers and the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir.

I have to admit I must have had a senior moment or two about this because I bought two tickets a while ago but got it into my head that it was last Thursday night. When I looked at the tickets on Thursday, and discovered I’d screwed up,  it transpired the friend I was supposed to go with on Thursday couldn’t make it on Sunday. What a shambles. I think I should apply for home help!

Anyway, I’m glad I went because it’s a fabulous piece that you really have to hear live in order the experience its full effect. Living in Wales might tend  to make one a bit blasé about choral music, but there’s no escaping the awesome power of the massed voices during the famous Dies Irae sequences that return throughout the work, to the accompaniment of a booming bass drum sounding the last judgement. The first time you hear that live I guarantee you’ll be pinned back in your seat.

The latin mass for the dead has inspired some of the greatest music written by some of the greatest composers, but it also seems to bring out something very personal and different from each one. Fauré’s Requiem, for example, is full of a fragile, angelic beauty and it portrays death as joyous release from earthly torment. Verdi’s take is quite different. It’s quite varied, musically, alternately sombre, accepting, meditative and, yes, even joyous too. But you’re never far from the terrifying hammer blows of the Dies Irae; one senses that Verdi’s own view of death was one dominated by fear.

Some say the Verdi Requiem is overwrought, but I don’t think anyone will ever say this piece isn’t dramatic. It’s also full of great tunes and wonderful dramatic contrasts. Is it too melodramatic? That’s a matter of taste. I don’t think it’s melodramatic but it’s certainly operatic, and I certainly don’t mean that to be derogatory. Above all, it’s just very Verdi. And that’s certainly not derogatory either.

The four soloists were all excellent: Yvonne Howard (soprano), Ceri Williams (mezzo), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor) and Robert Hayward (bass) and the orchestra did all the right things under the baton of veteran conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

I enjoyed the performance a lot, but left feeling a bit flat because St David’s Hall was only about 2/3 full. I always enjoy things more when there’s a full house as the atmosphere is always that bit more exciting. I’m not sure why it didn’t attract a better turnout – top price tickets were only £26. Perhaps it was because many classical music fans were listening to the main Prom in London, which this evening featured the great Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra?

I’ve never been to one of the Welsh proms before, and was interested to see that, like the Royal Albert Hall, St David’s also has promenaders standing just in front of the orchestra although they were not as numerous as in the Proms themselves.

Rigoletto

Posted in Opera with tags , , on June 26, 2010 by telescoper

Desperate for something to blog about other than the World Cup, I decided to end the working week with an evening of Opera at the  Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay. The new summer season of Welsh National Opera consists of only two operas; the one that has received the most press attention – and excellent reviews – has been their new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg starring Bryn Terfel. Although not long ago I promised to make an effort to get to grips with Wagner I’m afraid I couldn’t face the six-and-a-half hours running time and decided to give it a miss. Maybe next time. However, I couldn’t do without any fix of Grand Opera so decided to go to WNO’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Rigoletto is best known for a clutch of famous set-pieces, especially the tenor arias Questa o quella and La donna e mobile, Caro Nome, a spectacular coloratura piece for a soprano, and a truly beautiful quartet Bella figlia. If you hear these joyfully exuberant pieces on their own, you will probably get quite the wrong idea about what the Opera  is actually like. It’s actually one of the darkest tragedies to be found on the opera stage.

The hunchback Rigoletto is employed as a sort of court jester for the Duke of Mantua, a cynical Lothario possibly made by the same firm who constructed Don Giovanni. Rigoletto entertains the Duke not so much by telling jokes but by making fun of his enemies, and sometimes the other members of the court. The decadent Duke, who apparently has difficulty keeping his trousers on, is eventually confronted by Count Monterone whose daughter the Duke has dishonoured. Rigoletto swings into action and abuses the Count who lays a curse on the hunchback. Somewhat surprisingly, the curse has a powerful effect on Rigoletto who suddenly becomes remorseful and anxious for his future. He’s been pretty good at making enemies, and feels that payback time must be coming. Thus the tragedy is set in motion, and we know something very bad is going to happen.

Incidentally, there’s more than a hint of Don Giovanni, both musically and dramatically, in Count Monterone’s arrival at the Duke’s palace in Act I Scene I. I don’t know enough about Verdi to be sure, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s a deliberate homage to Mozart’s own tragic masterpiece.

On his way home, Rigoletto runs into a sinister character called Sparafucile who turns out to be a professional assassin. He offers his services should they ever be needed. When Rigoletto gets home we find out that he has a beautiful daughter, Gilda, whom he adores.In this scene we see the human side of Rigoletto. He’s no longer simply grotesque and nasty. He’s  a troubled and vulnerable man, coping with his deformity in the only way he knows how and doing his best to provide for and protect his daughter. He’s despised and he knows it.   Rigoletto is not a hero, but he’s not really a villian either. That ambiguity plays large part in giving this opera such emotional impact.

It then turns out the  Duke is  trying to seduce Gilda. To complicate matters further, the Duke’s courtiers kidnap Gilda as a prank thinking that she is Rigoletto’s mistress. When he finds out what has happened he eventually rescues Gilda, but swears revenge. Perhaps Sparafucile will come in useful after all…

Unfortunately, Gilda is bewilderingly naive and has actually rather taken to the Duke. She sings Caro Nome about him, but it’s actually a false name he’s given her. This aria works so well in the setting of the Opera because the audience knows that the Duke is a scumbag. Only Gilda doesn’t. It turns out, though, that Sparafucile has other irons in his fire; he also pimps for his sleazy sister Maddalena. At Rigoletto’s request he lures the Duke to his pad to have his way with Maddalena. Rigoletto brings Gilda along to see the Duke’s infidelity at first hand. She’s shocked, and he sends her away while Sparafucile gets ready to top the Duke. A thunderstorm gathers.

But Gilda’s so smitten with the Duke that she can’t bear to see him killed. Neither can Maddalena. He’s obviously quite a stud, this Duke. Maddalena tries to persuade Sparafucile to kill Rigoletto, when he returns with the payment, instead of the Duke. That way he’ll still get his money. In a moment of deliciously black comedy, Sparafucile refuses with words to the effect of “Do you think I’m some kind of crook?”. But Gilda returns to Sparafucile’s house in the storm, dressed in man’s clothes and pretending to be a beggar. Sparafucile doesn’t know who it is, and conceives a cunning plan. He  kills her, puts her body into a sack and passes it off as the remains of the Duke. Rigoletto returns, and can’t resist looking inside the sack. Gilda isn’t quite dead, but she dies in his arms. The curse has been fulfilled.

This revival of James MacDonald’s production places the action not in 19th Century Mantua but in Washington DC of the early sixties. There’s more than a hint of JFK in the Duke, his palace is the White House, the street scenes evoke West Side Story, and so on. Gilda in bobby socks works pretty well too. The problem is that it’s not obvious how Rigoletto fits into this setting, nor why people are wandering around Washington DC talking about coming from Burgundy and going to Verona.

Unfortunately, Gwyn Hughes-Jones was indisposed so Shaun Dixon had to stand in at short notice as the Duke. In the circumstances he gave a creditable performance but his voice lacked the power needed to shine in the big tenor arias and he didn’t have much in the way of stage presence, either. It’s quite difficult to understand Gilda’s credulity unless the Duke possesses considerable charisma, so he was a bit of a weak point.

On the other hand, baritone Simon Keenlyside was absolutely smashing as Rigoletto, and so was David Soar as a magnificently creepy Sparafucile.  Even better than these was American soprano Sarah Coburn as Gilda. Caro nome is heard so often – in commercials and elsewhere – that it’s very hard for singers to do something special with it. Sarah Coburn has wonderful control but her rendition was not only a flawless exhibition of vocal gymnastics;  she also invested it with a heartbreaking vulnerability completely in keeping with Gilda’s character. Her Caro nome was worth the ticket price on its own, I’d say. It was too much for the lady in the seat in front of me, though, who burst into tears half way through.