Yes, there is a Rossini opera with a Canadian character. Well, OK it’s a bit ambiguous whether he’s Canadian or American and the librettist doesn’t seem quite sure that they aren’t the same thing. Anyway, likely the earliest of an appearance of a Canadian in opera unless one counts the Les sauvages d’Amérique section of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. The opera is the early one act comedy, La cambiale di matrimonio. It’s a bit of a one trick pony. An English merchant has contracted to marry his daughter to the Canadian, Snook, but she’s already unofficially engaged to another. After much faffing about Snook makes the contract over to the other suitor and makes him his heir. The joke, such as it is, is that all this is carried out in the language of commercial contracts. For example, when Snook minds out that Fanny is engaged he considers the “merchandise” to be “mortgaged” and so on. Still it provides a back drop for some showy singing and the usual rapid fire Rossini ensemble numbers.
I really wanted to like David Warrack’s new piece Abraham that premiered last night at the Metropolitan United Church. It’s described as an oratorio and tells the story of the patriarch Abraham and uses that as a jumping off point for arguing for the breaking down of barriers between Jews, Christians and Muslims based on their shared heritage(*). Given recent events in Canada and elsewhere that’s obviously a worthy goal and the whole thing was in aid of the Metropolitan United Church Syrian Refugee Fund; reason enough, in itself, to go.
Last night saw the alternative cast for the COC’s Barber of Seville take the stage for the first time. Almaviva, Rosina, Bartolo, Basilio are all changed and, last night, owing to illness Joshua Hopkins was replaced as Figaro by Clarence Frazer which, in turn meant Jan Vakulik sang the Officer.
On February 2nd Voicebox: Opera in Concert will be performing Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The cast will be led by mezzo Alyson McHardy as Phèdre with tenor Colin Ainsworth as Hippolyte, soprano Meredith Hall as Aricie and veteran bass Alain Coulombe as Thesée. Accompaniment will be by the Aradia Ensemble conducted by Kevin Mallon. Tickets are available from www.stlc.com
It seems like some of the most interesting repertoire choices this year are being presented in concert rather than fully staged. At least this one has more than piano accompaniment.
Britten’s Albert Herring is mysteriously under represented in the DVD catalogue. The work is performed quite often being relatively inexpensive to mount and suitable for smaller venues but the many productions haven’t led to many recordings. I have only been able to find one and that dates back to 1985 when it was recorded at Glyndebourne. That’s appropriate enough as that’s the house the piece premiered in in 1947. At least it’s a fair and effective representation of the work. Peter Hall’s production takes few liberties with the libretto and is a rather literal and effective, if necessarily somewhat caricatured, representation of life in a Suffolk village. The sets and costumes are evocative; especially the hall of Lady Billows’ house which really evokes a 17th century Great Hall and, as the view through the window tells us, is set in or close to the village, not in an isolated park. There’s quite a lot of that kind of attention to detail in this production.
Last night I attended Soup Can Theatre’s double bill of Barber’s A Hand of Bridge followed by Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit; an English translation by Stuart Gilbert, of his 1944 play Huis Clos. The latter is a piece I’ve seen before and read in both English and French and I would never have imagined it could be presented as it was last night. It’s a play about three people who find themselves in a room in Hell together. They will be there for eternity, an eternal triangle I suppose, for they have been especially selected to get on each others’ nerves by continually reminding each character of that aspect of their former lives that they find least admirable. I have always seen it as an incredibly bleak play as befits one that premiered in Paris in the last months of the German occupation. I would never have imagined it as a comedy; albeit a dark one, but that’s what director Sarah Thorpe gave us. Continue reading →
Southern Television’s 1979 Glyndebourne broadcast was Beethoven’s Fidelio. The production by Peter Hall with designs by John Bury is conventional enough though tendencies to exaggerate are clearly creeping in. The chorus of prisoners is almost zombie like and Florestan looks disconcertingly like the legless sea captain from Blackadder II. Apart from that it’s a conventional 1800ish setting where the prison’s a prison, the dungeon’s a dungeon etc. It’s also very literal in that the dungeon is so dark it’s almost impossible to see anything. Continue reading →
Peter Hall’s 1981 Glyndebourne production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was quite celebrated in its day. How does it wear, thirty years later? The bottom line is it looks and sounds a bit tired.
The production was innovative in its day. The scenery in the forest is inhabited by supers who make it, in a sense, “enchanted” and the lighting is interesting (at least so far as one can tell on the DVD). The problem is it never manages to generate any sense of menace from the world of the Fairies without which, to me at least, Dream (Britten’s version or Shakespeare’s) is insipid. Part of this lies in the old fashioned counter tenor sound of James Bowman and part in the very childlike fairies. As a result the first act starts very slowly and the Hermia (Cynthia Buchan) and Lysander (Ryland Davies) scene fails to spark. The “I swear to thee” duet is really slow and a bit lack lustre. Things do liven up a bit with the entry of Demetrius (Dale Duesing) and Helena (Felicity Lott). All in all Act One is a bit of a snooze.
Act Two is better and the cat fight between Hermia and Helena is funny but there is still little element of menace. Oberon can’t even make “This is thy negligence” threatening and even the scenes with Bottom having an ass’ head don’t really have any bite. The Act Three lovers’ quartet is lively but Act Three really turns on whether the Rude Mechanicals are actually funny. That takes close to a miracle from both director and singers and a miracle just doesn’t happen here. Both Bottom (Curt Applegren) and Flute (Patrick Power) have their moments but it never gels. Throughout it’s fairly static with only Damien Nash’s “cheeky chappy” Puck creating much movement. So, lack of both menace and humour rather undermines some interesting design elements.
Musically this is pretty mixed too. Especially in the first act the orchestral playing seems oddly unfocussed. It’s partly a matter of tempi. Bernard Haitink is eight minutes slower overall compared to the composer’s studio recording for Decca. He also fails to get the rhythmic attack and dynamic range out of the LPO that Britten gets from the LSO. (Part of the problem here may be the soft recorded sound versus John Culshaw’s excellent Decca recording). The overall effect is a bit insipid. The singing is OK but really only Duesing and Lott stand out vocally. Ileana Cotrubas as Tytania is oddly anonymous.
Dave Heather directed for TV and video and it’s a typical early 1980s directed for TV effort. I don’t think the whole stage (and this is the old, small Glyndebourne stage) is visible even once. The picture is 1981 quality too. It’s soft by DVD standards. There is flickering on the subtitles. Don’t watch from too close on a modern TV. The Dolby 2.0 sound is barely average. There’s no real depth and at times the orchestra seems to be muffled. It’s not remotely as good as the sound on the 1966 studio recording. There are English, French and Spanish subtitles, no extras and minimal documentation.
I haven’t seen the only other Dream currently available but it’s a recent Robert Carsen production from Barcelona with Harry Bicket in the pit and David Daniels as Oberon plus video direction is by the excellent Francois Roussillon. I’d certainly advise taking a look at that before buying this one.
Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.
The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.
All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.
The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.
This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.
And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.