Mitridate, Re di Ponto

Mozart: Mitridate, Re di Ponto
The Royal Opera, Christophe Rousset
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 26 June 2017

By the time he composed Mitridate, Re di Ponto, Mozart has already written 13 symphonies, three operas, four masses, two oratorios, and around 20 sonatas for strings or keyboard. He was just 14. This revival of Graham Vick’s 26 year-old production exposes the extraordinary artifice that was the realm of opera seria, overblowing and exaggerating every aspect of Mozart’s youthful exploration of love and family feuding.

The opera opened with what looked like the aftermath of a nasty accident. It seemed as though Aspasis had crash landed through the top of a vast cloth-covered sideboard, leaving only the upper part of her body visible. It took a while to realise that it was not a sideboard, but her costume – one of a number of vast rectangular tent-like creations of huge width that some of the singers had to contend with for much of the evening. One of several, presumably unintended, audience laughs came when a closing set panels left just enough space for Aspasia to walk through without turning sideways. She later appeared as though sitting behind a large bedecked dinner table, as pictured. Indeed the striking costume design was one of the main features of this production, which included a number of impressively choreograph set-piece dances, at one stage complete with a lot of foot-stomping, stick-banging and skirt-twirling, the whole more in Japanese than Anatolian (or 18th century European) style.
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LPO: Haydn’s Creation

Haydn: The Creation
London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, 
Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 4 February 2017

This continuation of the Southbank ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ series of concerts featured Joseph Haydn’s 1798 Creation. As with two of the pieces in the previous London Philharmonic Orchestra concert (reviewed here), it focussed on the beginning of the world, in this case as depicted in the late Bronze Age writings of the Old Testament. Haydn once said that when he thought of God he could write only cheerful music, and this is evident in his often seemingly irreverent take on God’s creation. Sir Roger Norrington has a similar twinkle in his eye, and was an ideal conductor for Haydn’s often (but perhaps not always intentionally) amusing moments.

As well as his pioneering work in the interpretation of music of earlier times, Norrington is also an enthusiastic supporter of audiences. He has a winning way, which he used on this occasion for another of his themes – applause. Continue reading

Academy of Ancient Music: The Bach Family

The Bach Family
Academy of Ancient Music, Lucy Crowe, Reinhard Goebel
Barbican. 18 June 2016

Unfortunately this concert will be remembered by me because, not for the first time, I found the behaviour of conductor Reinhard Goebel disturbing, both on and off stage. This started with his pre-concert talk, an event he totally dominated, arriving with his hands fumbling all over the hapless female AAM communications manager before announcing himself, and then suggesting that his much-handled companion also announce him. She then managed to ask one very simple question, which led to a rambling, incoherent, and often incorrect 30 minute monologue on practically anything but the question asked. For some reason, that probably didn’t reduce his ego, there was only one chair provided, meaning that the unfortunate communication manager ended up sitting at his feet on the floor at the edge of the dais. Amongst Goebel’s more alarming contentions was that Bach didn’t compose anything in the last two decades of his life, an extraordinary error that he only partially reined back on later in his talk. He also described Bach as a ‘nasty person’ who ‘hated the world’.

In the concert itself, Goebel pranced onto the stage clad in a clownish bright red cummerbund and matching bow tie and, bizarrely, carrying two batons. Continue reading

Duet: Cornelius, Mendelssohn, Schumann

Duet
Cornelius, Mendelssohn, Schumann
Lucy Crowe & William Berger, with Iain Burnside (piano)
Delphian. DCD34167. 60’23.

Cornelius: Duette, Op. 16,  Frühling im Sommer, Zweistimmige Lieder,  Zu den Bergen hebt sich ein Augenpaar;
Mendelssohn: Lieder-Duette, Altdeutsches Frühlingslied ‘Der trübe Winter ist vorbei’;
Schumann: Dein Angesicht, Familien-Gemälde, Das Glück, Ich bin dein Baum, Aufträge, Wiegenlied.

Schumann Mendelssohn Cornelius Duet Lucy William Berger Iain Burnside DelphianThis rather unusual CD reflects one of the glories of 19th century domestic music-making (itself reaching its zenith in that period), the repertoire for two voices and piano, in this case represented by Cornelius, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, three of the finest masters of the genre. Generally overlooked nowadays in favour of larger scale performances, this CD reflects a now almost completely forgotten aspect of earlier home life: music making centred on the domestic piano. However, in this case, the venue is more likely to be a saloon, given the recording acoustic of a church and the rather unauthentic use of a modern concert grand piano (given its own billing in the programme note as a Steinway model D, serial number 589064) rather than a period piano – or, indeed, the more likely upright to be found in most 19th century homes. Continue reading

ENO: The Magic Flute

Mozart: The Magic Flute
English National Opera
The Coliseum.  19 February 2016

What a different three years makes! I was rather dismissive of the first run of Simon McBurney’s 2013 new production of The Magic Flute, together with his theatre company Complicite in partnership with Netherlands Opera and Aix-en-Provence.  This was the first new ENO production of The Magic Flute for around 25 years, and replaced Nicholas Hytner’s much-loved, if rather traditional take. My review of the opening of McBurney’s version included “In contrast to the previous production, this Magic Flute is dark, mysterious and more than a little weird. A flood of ideas drenched the stage, aided by a commentator sitting in a box in the corner, chalking up comments onto a large video screen. But there seems, at least to me, on first sight, little coherence to link it all together. Masonic references are played down, but the element of cult is still stressed through colour-coded camps in conflict . . . It may well be that, in 25 years time, I will miss this production.  But, in the meantime, it will certainly take me some time to get used to it”.

Well, having now seen it for a second time, with revival director Josie Daxter (also from Complicite) and a new conductor, ENO’s new music director Mark Wigglesworth, and with some tweaking to the staging, I am happy to admit that I was bowled over by it. A radical take on the well-known, if little-understood plot, the Continue reading

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
Royal Opera House, 24 September 2015

With the Royal Opera House home team playing away in China, the field was open for a take over by the period instrument brigade. Although the house band of the ROH (and other opera venues) have been getting better at adopting suitable ‘period’ performance techniques in recent years, I have suggested many times over the years that they bring in a specialist orchestra for their ‘early music’ productions. On this occasion there was a more-or-less complete take-over by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, together with the Hofesh Shechter Company of dancers. The directors were Hofesh Shechter and the ROH’s own John Fulljames, and the conductor was John Eliot Gardiner. This was part of the Royal Opera House’s recent focus on the Orpheus myth that started with their Roundhouse production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo last February (reviewed elsewhere on this site). Continue reading

Songs of Love, War and Melancholy

Songs of Love, War and Melancholy
the operatic fantasies of Jacques-François Gallay
Anneke Scott, natural horn, Steven Devine, piano, Lucy Crowe, soprano
Resonus Classics. RES10153 66’41 

Fantaisie brillante sur l’opéra ‘Les Martyrs’ de Donizetti (Op. 49),
Fantaisie sur une cavatine de ‘Belisario’ de Donizetti (Op. 42),
‘Fuis, laisse-moi’ de ‘Roberto Devereux’ de Donizetti,
Fantasia sopra un motivo dell’opera ‘Bianca e Fernando’ di Bellini (Op. 47/2),
Troisième Mélodie sur une cavatine de ‘La Sonnambula’ de Bellini (Op. 28),
‘Une Larme Furtive’ de ‘L’Elisir d’amore’ de Donizetti,
Fantaisie sur l’opéra ‘L’Elisir d’amore’ de Donizetti (Op. 46),
Fantaisie brillante sur un motif de ‘Norma’ de Bellini (Op. 40),
‘L’Appel du Chasseur’ des ‘Soirées Italiennes’ de Mercadante.

This CD explores the fascinating (and little-known) world of the French ‘opera fantasy’, an early to mid 19th century musical genre where leading instrumentalists, already well-used to having to create their own repertoire, arranged extracts from Italian operas for their own instrument. One of the leading exponents of that art was the renowned principal horn-player of the Théâtre Italian, Jacques-François Gallay. Five of his Continue reading

Purcell/Sellars – The Indian Queen. English National Opera

Peter Sellars has done it again!  Although billed as “Purcell’s” Indian Queen, the latest in his radical reinterpretations of opera is really Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen, the plot completely re-imagined as a vehicle for Sellars’ political and social views.   This spectacular production left me more conflicted than many Sellars’ shows that I have seen.  As a pure performance extravaganza, it certainly worked well. But in order for it to work, you needed to suppress any sense of history or musical integrity.

With his spiky lavatory-brush hair and right-on approach to contemporary politics, this impish and oh-so-American director has always taken a cavalier approach to opera, imposing his own views on whatever plot the composer might have chosen.  His latest London production, notionally based on Purcell’s The Indian Queen (English National Opera, 26 Feb), is one of the most extreme examples of this approach, not least because he has jettisoned the text entirely and replaced it with spoken text of his own choosing – principally extracts from the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar.  Aguilar’s novel aims to “recapture the woman’s view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. The historical setting has been changed from the years before the Spanish conquest of Central America (and a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico) to a post-conquest scenario where the brutality of the Spanish invaders is intermixed with a curious love story between Teculihuatzin (the Mayan Indian Queen) and Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors.

The music is based on Purcell’s unfinished ‘semi opera’ The Indian Queen, original intended as incidental music to Dryden’s play. It was first performed in 1695 in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a few months before Purcell’s death. Only about 50 minutes of Purcell’s survives, consisting of a series of musical interludes at the end of each act, never quite achieving the status of typical late 17th century ‘masques’.  The music is difficult to programme in concerts – a 50 minute series of seemingly unrelated short pieces of very different temperaments and moods.  But Purcell’s music has the ability to delve into unbearably intense emotional depths, so it deserves to be heard far more than it is.

To that extent, Sellars has done Purcell’s music a service, in that it gets performed.  This is a co-production between ENO and the Russian Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, and had been performed in both places, to varying degrees of success, before its London opening.  To turn it into a full length (indeed, an over-long) opera, Sellars has added other music by Purcell, sacred and secular.   Not content with the new post-conquest story, Sellars’ opens at the beginning of time, Mayan style, with five scenes from Mayan creation myths, with dancing to a backdrop of what was supposed to be jungle noise, but was in practice rather uncomfortable white-noise broadcast rather too loudly from loudspeakers.  We were sent out for the interval with an almost cartoon-style massacre and rivers of blood, all to the accompaniment of ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well in Madrid.  Sellars’ trademark mannered infant-class gestures featured in many of the chorus’s actions – something I have never got used.

The staging, lighting, costumes and the large painted panels were all bold and impressive.  And the music was outstanding, with generally excellent singing from the youthful soloists. Lucy Crowe excelled as Doña Isabel, notably in O Solitude and See, even night herself is here.  Bass Luthando Qave impressed as a Mayan Shaman, as did Noah Stewart as Don Pedro de Alvarado.  Vince Yi (Hunahpú) is billed as a countertenor, but his voice had the timbre of a male soprano.  Luisa Julia Bullock (as Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa) displayed far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my taste and for Purcell’s music, although she impressed in her late duet O Lord, rebuke me not with Lucy Crowe. The text was extremely well declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero, portrayed as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and Don Pedro, and therefore of mixed race; something key to the text.

Laurence Cummings directed the ENO house band, most playing modern instruments, but showing just how far they have come in recent year to understanding period performance – something that Cummings must take much of the responsibility and credit for.  The orchestra was lifted to almost stage level, making them visible to most of the audience.  An unfortunately un-named specialist period instrument continuo group deserved the special applause they got at the end.  Laurence Cummings got into the mood of Sellars’ directorial style, pushing the music to its limits albeit always within his own deep understanding of period style.  Notable were several moments when he paused, mid phrase, producing very effective dramatic moments.  My only musical quibble was with the chorus, whose unadulterated vibrato I would have found excessive in Wagner.  I know that is just what they might have had to sing the following evening, and that it is hard to rein in vibrato, but unless they can do it I do wonder if bringing a specialist choir might be a solution to what is, too often, an ENO issue.

I always approach Sellars productions with a degree of trepidation, as this evening was no exception. But, despite everything arguing against it, I quickly got into the spectacular of the production and the curious story. Yes, it was too long, but the music was something special.  I tried not to like it, but just couldn’t.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/01/purcellsellars-the-indian-queen-english-national-opera/]