Archive for Welsh National Opera

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…

 

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

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.

 

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.

wno-macbeth-wno-chorus-witches-photo-credit-richard-hubert-smith-9482

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.

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!

Moses und Aron

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by telescoper

Last night I found myself once again in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, the bank holiday weekend giving me enough breathing space to head back to Wales for a short break and take in an Opera.

As it turned out there was a rare treat on the menu: the first night of a new Welsh National Opera production of Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg. It was well worth the trip from Brighton.

Schoenberg had only completed two of the three acts by the time of his death in 1951 so the Opera is unfinished. On the other hand the Biblical story of the Exodus is so familiar that it doesn’t matter too much that some is missing. But although the plot is well known the Opera gives it several new dimensions.

Moses is chosen by God to lead his people from captivity but he is deeply troubled by the difficulty of this task because of his old age and the ‘clumsiness of his tongue’. Moses’ brother Aron has a much easier way with words (and pictures) so they join forces and lead the Jews from captivity into the wilderness.

Moses has deep reservations about Aron’s freedom with the use of images and other gimmicks, with good reason. In Act 2 while Moses is away receiving the Ten Commandments and whatnot, leaving Aron in charge, Aron permits all kind of lewd and ungodly behaviour, all starting with his use of images to depict God. Upon Moses’ return all that comes to an end, but it has exposed an irreconcilable disagreement between the two brothers about what if anything of the divine can ever be expressed in words. Moses’ concept of God is absolute and unknowable, requiring faith rather than understanding; Aron is content to use the Method of Images.

I’m not qualified to go into the theology behind all this, but it did have some resonance with me as a scientist. How much of the truth of creation do we capture with our words and equations, or are they just images?

Anyway, back to the Opera. The staging was modern, Act I was a lecture room or conference centre. Moses appeared as an ageing professor and Aron as a sort of Teaching Assistant. The Israelites were depicted as rowdy and occasionally violent students. The set changed slightly in Act 2 to resemble a movie theatre, implying that Aron’s images were cinematic, presumably violent and pornographic.

Moses was played by the legendary Sir John Tomlinson. His deeply sonorous voice and compelling stage presence provided a perfect focus for the production. Aron was Mark Le Brocq, whose fine performance was all the more remarkable because he was understudy for Rainer Trost who was unwell; to pick up such a challenging part at a few hours’ notice can not be easy and he did wonderfully well. As always, the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were also excellent.

Schoenberg’s music for Moses un Aron is resolutely serialist, which will no doubt put some people off. I found it gripping and starkly beautiful, performed with consummate artistry by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs.

All in all, yet another wonderful evening of music drama courtesy of WNO. Only two performances of Moses und Aron were planned for Cardiff this season; the other is next Friday (30th May). I’m glad that the Wales Millennium Centre was nearly full, as I hope WNO will continue putting on rare and challenging music like this. Unfortunately it seems the Arts Council have other ideas, and have just cut their grant to WNO. Fewer new productions and more revivals are in store from now on.

Maria Stuarda & Roberto Devereux

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2013 by telescoper

I spent last weekend in Cardiff in order to catch the remaining two operas in the series of three bel canto Tudor operas by Gaetano Donizetti being staged by Welsh National Opera; my review of the first, Anna Bolena, which I saw a month ago, can be found here.

Saturday night (5th october) in Cardiff Bay saw me at the splendid Wales Millennium Centre for Maria Stuarda. Although inspired by the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the plot of this Opera is almost entirely imagined. In particular, the dramatic centrepiece of the story is a meeting between Maria Stuarda and Queen Elizabeth I an event that never actually happened. In the Opera it is this encounter – which, to put it mildly, doesn’t go very well – that leads to Elizabeth finally making the decision to have Mary Stewart executed.

The Opera begins with Elizbeth I under pressure from her Court to marry the Duke of Anjou and to show mercy towards Mary Queen of Scotland (who has ambitions for the throne of England) who has been under house arrest for the best part of twenty years. She sees the political advantage of an alliance with France through marriage, but is secretly in love with Roberto (aka Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) who is actually keen on Mary. When Elizabeth and Mary actually do meet – accidentally, when Elizabeth is out hunting – their hatred for each other is impossible to disguise. After some terse exchanges, Mary loses her temper and denounces Elizabeth. Doomed, she is taken back into captivity; Elizabeth finally signs her death warrant, and orders Roberto to witness the execution. Protesting her innocence Mary says her goodbyes and is led off to be beheaded. End of story.

The plot may not be historically accurate but it’s ideal material for an opera, with the Chorus of Welsh National Opera in good form and Donizetti’s beautiful score to counterpoint the seething emotions of love, jealousy and revenge. Lasting around 2 hours and 45 minutes (including the interval) it’s also sharper and more focussed than Anna Bolena. The highlight of the evening was Judith Howarth’s stunning performance as Maria Stuarda, whose huge voice invested her role with immense dramatic power; Alastair Miles was a sombre and sonorous Talbot and Adina Nitescu was pretty good as Elisabetta (Elizabeth). Costumes were dark, and scenery minimal, as in Anna Bolena. The one thing I didn’t like was Maria Stuarda’s tartan skirt, not exactly the most subtle way of marking out the Queen of Scotland, which stuck out like a sore thumb among the black dresses on stage.

And so to Roberto Devereux, which finds an older Queen Elizabeth trying to protect her lover Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex) against charges of treason emanating from his enemies at court until she discovers that he also loves another woman, although she doesn’t know who it is; in fact it is her friend Sarah Duchess of Nottingham. Meanwhile the Duke of Nottingham isn’t too happy about Roberto’s dalliances with his wife. Eventually the net closes on Roberto and he attempts to flee but is captured, foolishly carrying a gift given to him by Sarah. His fate is sealed and he is executed, but not before Sarah shows up and reveals herself to be Elizabeth’s rival. Elizabeth has a sudden change of mind and attempts to halt Roberto’s execution, but she’s too late. In remorse the Queen longs for her own death.

The star of this show was undoubtedly the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, who were on superb form, right from opening bars of the overture with its deliciously wry references to the National Anthem. Conductor Daniele Rustoni, who was great in Anna Bolena too, bouncing about in the pit, clearly enjoys Donizetti’s music enormously and got the very best out of the musicians.

The production was a bit strange though. Mostly sombre and minimal as the previous two Tudor operas, it nevertheless included some bizarre variations in costume and scenery. Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux was a leather-clad gigolo whose diminutive stature contrasted with the tall and elegant Alexandra Deshorties as a rather vampy Queen Elizabeth, even dressed in leather like a dominatrix for some of the time; although her attire was a bit incongruous I actually thought she was fabulous. Later on, even more strangely, a giant mechanical spider appeared on stage. I didn’t really get the point of this contratption, but thought the sudden injection of Steampunk imagery was a blast. After all, you don’t go to the opera expecting everything to make sense. The elderly blue-rinsed lady sitting next to me didn’t agree: “I don’t think so” she said in a loud voice when the aforementioned arachnid began its perambulation across the set…

Anyway, I enjoyed all three of these operas. Each has much to offer, though I think Maria Stuarda is the best overall. Some people seem to think that Bel Canto operas just consist of a series of vocal exercises with those not involved hanging around on stage clearing their throats ready for their turn. That’s entirely unfair. There’s real drama in these works and I commend Welsh National Opera for their courageous decision to stage all three of them in a single season.

Anna Bolena at WNO

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , , on September 9, 2013 by telescoper

It was the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, but I was otherwise engaged at the First Night of the new production by Welsh National Opera of Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. This is one of three famous Donizetti operas set in the Tudor period (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which I was slightly surprised to learn are collectively often described as the “Three Donizetti Queens”; I’m not sure what this implies about the erstwhile Earl of Essex. Anyway, as a fan of Italian bel canto I decided I just had to go to see Anna Bolena in Cardiff, even though it meant a trek back to Brighton yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the other two Queens in due course.

Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s imagining of the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so it’s basically the dark story of a young woman trapped in a web of intrigue and betrayal, a story made all the darker by the fact that it is based on real events. I wonder if such a plot would have ever have been considered plausible if it hadn’t actually happened?

The opera begins with Anna already having lost favour with her husband Enrico (Henry VIII), who is intent on ditching her in favour of  Jane (Giovanna) Seymour (who would shortly become Wife Number Three), but he first has to find a pretext to have her got rid of. Enrico lays a trap involving her brother, George Boleyn (the Lord Rocheford), the young musician Smeaton and Anna’s ex, Lord Percy, into which they and Anna duly fall. The hapless Smeaton confesses to having had an affair with Anna in the mistaken belief that she would be spared if he did so. Unfortunately, this amounts to an admission of treason. Despite Jane Seymour’s plea to Enrico to spare Anna’s life, she is condemned to die. The opera ends with all four people implicated in the plot walking off the stage to face execution, reconciled to their fate.

Of course the story is familiar from school history lessons, but what is especially compelling about it how it is told in this context is how the opera draws the audience into the character and innermost thoughs of the protagonists. For examples, Anna is more complex than you might imagine. It is true that she is naive, and out of her depth in a court so filled with plots and snares, but she is also at the same time ambitious and determined. Anna’s relationship with her rival Jane Seymour is also subtly nuanced, their deep fondness for each other demonstrated in a truly wonderful duet between soprano (Anna) and mezzo (Giovanna). The only real weak spot as far as characterization goes is Enrico, who comes across as little more than a pantomime villain (even to the extent that he received humorous boos on his curtain call). Of course Henry’s behaviour was tyrannical, but the drama would have worked more convincingly if there were at least something about him (other than his crown) that made Anna and Giovanna both adore him so much..

In typical bel canto style the voices of the singers are often extremely exposed, with the orchestra taking a back seat to a succession of dazzling coloratura passages with very little doubling of the vocal line to act as a safety net. At times, Donizetti’s music is little more than a basic backing track, but there is gorgeous orchestral writing in there too where the drama requires it. And that’s the point. Bel canto is not and never has been just about beautiful singing; the great operas in this genre also have great dramatic power and emotional intensity.

Serena Farnocchia’s Anna Bolena (soprano) was ably matched in beauty and clarity of voice by Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour (mezzo soprano). Faith Sherman (contralto) sang the part of the boy Smeaton with great sensitivity. Alastair Miles was also pretty good as Enrico, but I think the role suits someone with a more powerful bass voice. Robert McPherson as Lord Percy sang accurately enough but his lightish tenor voice has a rather nasal edge to it which took me quite a while to get used to.

The staging is stark and rather minimal, with just a few references to the Tudor period in items of furniture and in the style of the costumes (which are mainly black) but otherwise very little in terms of scenery. Very effective use was made of the revolving centre of the stage which provided movement without distracting from the most important aspect of the opera, namely the emotional turmoil of the characters on stage. The various elements of the staging and music came together in stunning fashion during Anna’s `Mad Scene’ near the end of Act II in which, delirious on the eve of her execution, she lapses into a trance-like state and relives happier moments while her friends gradually drift away into darkness. The lighting is sombre throughout the production, but in the Mad Scene Anna takes on a ghostly appearance. Musically speaking, this scene is quite famous – there’s an amazing version with Maria Callas as Anna here– but I found the cumulative effect of the elements of the life performance quite overwhelming. I’ll have to add this one to my list of pieces of music likely to make me fall to bits and thus to be avoided on trains…

A word too for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under conductor Daniele Rusitioni who played the gorgeous music impeccably. And another word for the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were also excellent, not just in their singing but also in their wider contributions onstage.

All in all, a very fine night at the opera. The only real disappointment for me was that there were so many empty seats. It’s true that Anna Bolena isn’t one of the best known operas, but it is a gem. I hope this production gets the audience it deserves. And I also hope I can get to see the rest of the Tudors!

PS. I notice that the Guardian review has given it 4 stars. Bit stingy, possibly..

Lohengrin at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.

Lohengrin  is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of  young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a  trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…

In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:

Swan

The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.

In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.

Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs  in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.

It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.

As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich  with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.

Lothar Koenigs is  a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? – which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.

Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of  Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.

I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.

It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!