Last night’s concert by the UoT Fall Baroque Academy was more Sesto in a Sauna then Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The music was all from Handel’s arguably greatest opera but the great man himself went unrepresented. Various mezzos and sopranos plus a counter tenor got through pretty much all of Sesto’s arias, Cleo’s big three arias were all presented and there was a smattering of Cornelia, Tolomeo and one aria from Achilla,the only low voice on display. The venue was Trinity College Chapel, notably not only for lack of air conditioning (on the hottest day of the year) but also for an acoustic that is kind to instrumental ensembles but tends to suck voices up into the high vaulted roof. Some singers coped better than others.
Back in January I saw Opera 5’s show Modern (Family) Opera at the Arts and Letters Club. I didn’t review it here because I was covering it for Opera Canada. It seems that there was some breakdown in communication, probably the dodgy email connection at our temporary digs last winter, and it never made it to the mag and so wasn’t printed. It’s a pity as it was a good show and so, belatedly, I’m sticking the review here, for the record, instead.
The recently announced death of Jon Vickers has had me thinking a lot about connections. Vickers sang the title role in the second opera I saw live; Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in July 1975. Oddly, the first was The Rhinegold, at ENO, conducted by Reginald Goodall who also conducted the premiere performance of Peter Grimes in 1945. The summers of 1975 and 1976 were the first real chance, and the last for a while, that I had to see opera live. I worked those summer vacations in banks in central London which meant that I could use my lunchbreak to get a rush ticket for the evening performance. Living thirty miles out with a train to catch meant it wasn’t something I could do often but I did catch a couple of performances in each of those summers and, as I look back, there are so many beginnings and endings and connections.
Katherina Thoma not unreasonably chooses to set her 2013 Glyndebourne production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a country house in the south of England (though I suppose equating the Christies with a rather boorish Viennese bourgeois might be thought a touch unkind). She also chooses to set it in 1940 which sets us up for an almost Marxian dialectic not just between high art and low art but between art and life; especially where life and death are concerned.
Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year. It was a pretty good year overall. On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs. The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC. It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant. Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts. Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl. Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production. I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.
The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting. The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation. It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe. In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials. The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.
The Real Don Giovanni is an extremely quirky 1998 docu-drama starring Sir Thomas Allen. It’s set during a work when he is singing the Don at the Stavovské divadlo; site of the opera’s 1787 premier. He’s also investigating his theory that Don Giovanni was based on Giacomo Casanova who was, indeed, he claims, much involved in the creation of the opera. He pursues his research in various archives, including Duchkov Castle, ladies’ bedrooms and through an interesting encounter with two tarts in a graveyard..
It was during the recent run of Cosí fan tutte at the COC that I realised that I really needed to get my hands on the M22 recording (Salzburg 2006). Specifically it was discussing the Salzburg reading of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann with Thomas Allen and Rachel Andrist; who is the on stage continuo player in the Salzburg recording. It sounded like there might be interesting parallels. And parallels there are. In both cases the girls are aware of the “plot” (in every sense). In both cases four attractive young singers have been cast as the lovers and Don Alfonso and Despina made much older and more cynical. There I think the parallels end. Egoyan’s vision is essentially a positive one about relationships. The Herrmans, I think, are more interested in exploring the psychologically destructive power of love and desire.