Archive for Opera

R.I.P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 6, 2018 by telescoper

I woke today to the very sad news of the death, at the age of 85, of legendary Opera singer Montserrat Caballé.

By way of a small tribute to marking the passing of one of the true greats, here she is singing the beautiful aria Signore, ascolta! from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. As the title suggests, you should listen to the whole thing because it’s lovely, but be prepared for something truly astonishing from about 2.16 onwards as the singer demonstrates unbelievable control by holding that final high note in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible..

R. I. P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

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The Greatest Scarpia

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are always busy so today I’ll just put this here. It’s the great operatic baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang almost a thousand times in his career. This is the Te Deum scene, at the end of Act I, in which Scarpia after sending his men to follow Tosca to her lover Cavaradossi, he sings of his lustful desire as worshippers gather fora service at the Church in which the action takes place.

There have been many excellent interpreters of the role of Tosca (in which role I think Renata Tebaldi was every bit as good as Maria Callas) but Tito Gobbi (who sang the role with both Callas and Tebaldi) was the Scarpia of his age, and perhaps of any…

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.

 

 

La Bohème at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on January 30, 2017 by telescoper

So, to get away from the world for a short while I went on Saturday to the opening night of the new season by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff – a tale of poverty and doomed love, ending in a tragic death. Well, what did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?

I suppose the story of La Bohème will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Opera, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway.  It’s a boy-meets-girl love story, of course. The boy in this case is the poet Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and the girl, actually named Lucia but known  as Mimi (Marina Costa-Jackson).  The setting is Paris around 1830, and the poet and his painter friend Marcello (Gary Griffiths) are starving and freezing, as it is winter and they have no money.  Act I is set on Christmas Eve, but the two friends have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. Fortunately, their musician friend Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) turns up with money and provisions. After various comings and goings – including the arrival of philosopher Colline (Jihoon Kim) and an untimely visit from the landlord (Howard Kirk) everyone but Rodolfo leaves to spend Christmas Eve out on the town; Rodolfo has to finish a piece for a journal, and promises to join them when he is done. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mimi, who lives nearby and whose candle has gone out. It’s love at first sight…

The later stages of Act I are built around Rodolfo’s aria Che Gelida Manina (“your tiny hand is frozen”) and Mimi’s Mi Chiamano Mimi. These beautiful songs follow one another in quick succession, and are then rounded off with a wonderful duet O Soave Fanciulla  in a manner guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. And, before you ask, yes I did cry again. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone noticed.

But it’s not just the ravishing music that makes this passage so special, it’s also Puccini’s gift as a story-teller: after the two arias by Rodolfo and Mimi, the audience knows everything they need to know about these characters. It’s a great example of why I think Puccini is a far greater writer of Opera than, say, Wagner. Puccini understood much better than Wagner how to vary  pace and colour  without allowing the story to bogged down, and he knew exactly how to use his big tunes to maximum dramatic effect (i.e. without excessive repetition). In fact, La Bohème is in four acts, but its running time is just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, packed full of gorgeous music and compelling drama. It’s a supreme example of Puccini’s artistry as a composer of Opera.

Anyway, back to the plot. Act II finds Rodolfo and Mimi joining in the party started by Marcello and his buddies. There’s a huge contrast here between the dingy garret in which Act I is set, as this is set in the Latin Quarter of gay Paris (with a few drag queens in this production thrown in to make the point). Marcello gets off with the object of his desire, the coquettish Musetta (Lauren Fagan), and all seems well with the world as we go into the interval.

In Act III we find things have changed. Rodolfo’s love for Mimi has soured and, overcome by jealousy and suspicion, he has left her. Clearly unwell, Mimi wanders around looking for Rodolfo and he hears her coughing. They clearly still love each other, but find it difficult to live with each other. If Opera were Facebook they would both have “It’s complicated” on their status.

The last act finds us back in the garret, Rodolfo and Mimi having separated. But Mimi has been wandering the streets in the freezing cold and turns up, clearly gravely ill. Rodolfo’s friends quickly pawn some meagre possessions and Marcello and Musetta rush out to buy medicine and summon a doctor. They return with the medicine but, before the doctor arrives, Mimi dies.

People say that this is a romantic opera but it’s a pretty bleak story when you think about it. The lovers’ happiness is brief and it all ends in despair and death in surroundings of poverty and squalor. That’s what Opera Verismo is all about. In this production Mimi really does looks ill at the end, making the ending all the more heartbreaking.

All the principals were very good. I thought the voice of Dominick Chenes sounded a little thin at the start and was worried that he might have to force it during the big arias, but he warmed up magnificently. Lauren Fagan was a very sassy as the “tart-with-a heart” Musetta. The other person who deserves a particular mention was the bass Jihoon Kim as Colline, who has a superb voice.

And a word for the production. This revival of Annabel Arden’s design – slightly different from the last time I saw it, with a different case, five years ago – managed to bring fresh elements to what is basically a straightforward interpretation of the Opera. The visual effects, such as the animated snow,  were clever but not intrusive. There was no attempt to translate the action into a different period or location nor was there an attempt to preach about disease as a metaphor for moral failings. In this respect it’s very faithful to what I think Puccini’s intentions were, i.e. to let the audience make their own mind up about what message they want to take away. The only slight departure I spotted was that in Act I Mimi actually blows her own candle out deliberately in order to get Rodolfo to light it again. Methinks she’s a bit more forward than usual in this production.

This was the first performance of this run of La Bohème. If you love Opera and can get to Cardiff, then do go and see it. It’s very special.

P.S. I was a little amused by the image of the skyline of 19th Century Paris projected in front of the curtains before the show started. It did much to set the atmosphere, but I really don’t think those TV aerials should have been there…

 

Signore, ascolta!

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 3, 2014 by telescoper

Time for a Friday lunchtime end-of-the-week kind of a post. This is the great Montserrat Caballé singing the beautiful aria Signore, ascolta! from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. As the title suggests, you should listen to the whole thing because it’s lovely, but be prepared for something truly astonishing from about 2.16 onwards as the singer demonstrates unbelievable control by holding that final high note in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible..

Elektra

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2013 by telescoper

I seem to have spent more time in London than in Brighton over the last week, and on Saturday I was in the Big Smoke again, for a Night at the Opera. This was a trip I’ve been looking forward to for some time, because it was made possible by the good folks of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University: when I left at the end of January this year they presented me with a gift voucher for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which I’ve only just around to using. So before going on, let me take the opportunity express my gratitude for such a lovely gift!

The Opera I went to see was Elektra by Richard Strauss, in a revival of Charles Edwards’s production that first ran in 2003. Elektra is a complex story (geddit?) set in ancient Mycenae, whose ruling class is gripped by a terrible family feud. The Opera begins with Elektra deranged with grief because of the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra. She resolves to take revenge on her mother and her allies. Her hopes are initially thwarted when her sister Chrysothemis refuses to help and she hears of the death of her brother Orestes. However, Orestes is not dead; he returns to the Palace and, together with a companion, goes on a bloody rampage. The final scenes see the stage covered with dead bodies and the murderers drenched in blood. Elektra rejoices that her revenge is complete, but the fulfilment of her goal leaves her with nothing left to live for; the collapses and dies.

That’s what you go to the Opera for, a happy ending!

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Elektra is an opera in one Act, so it runs for about two hours without an interval. Christine Goerke was absolutely outstanding as Elektra, as was Iain Paterson as Orestes. The music by Richard Strauss is full of contrasts: at times dark and brooding, but at others with a radiant beauty. Those extremes represent the psychological extremes of the story: Elektra’s obsession with revenge is a distorted reflection of her love for her father. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Christopher Willis, standing in for Andris Jansons who was ill, added excellent colour and dynamics to the action on stage.

With all the corpses coming back to life in bloodstained costumes, the curtain call looked the Zombie Apocalypse had started, but we managed to escape and made it to an excellent Italian restaurant in time for a splendid supper followed by too much grappa. I didn’t get back to Brighton until late this afternoon…

Aida in Verona (2006)

Posted in Biographical, Opera, Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 10, 2013 by telescoper

I thought I’d try out the WordPress app for my Blackberry by posting this old picture, taken in the Arena di Verona while we were waiting for the start of the sumptuous production of Verdi’s Aida on 30th July 2006. The Opera doesn’t start there until it gets dark, but the evening sun was glinting on the gold pyramid sitting in the centre of the stage, so I couldn’t resist getting a picture. The late start meant we enjoyed a nice dinner before the performance, along with a very nice bottle of Amarone