The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.
Richard Jones chose to set his 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Windsor in 1946. I suspect it’s driven by similar reasoning to Robert Carsen’s 1950s production. Falstaff plays out very nicely as a conflict between an older order of things and a more thrusting kind of bourgeoisie and 1940s/50s England works well for that. The “just after the war” setting also allows Jones to present Fenton as a G.I. which adds another twist to Ford’s distrust of him. Although the jumping off point for Jones and Carsen is the same the results are quite different. Jones seems to be operating in the traditions of English farce, à la Brian Rix, or maybe Carry on films,which works pretty well. Falstaff is a farce rather than a comedy of manners. So, besides the obligatory entrances and exits, couples caught in flagrante etc we also get a certain geometric precision in the blocking that borders on choreography. In Act 1 Scene 2, for instance, the ladies rather military perambulation in a garden of very precisely aligned cabbages is doubled up by Brownies and a rowing four countermarching.
British baritone Christopher Purves was the lunch special at the Four Seasons Centre today. Along with the amazing Liz Upchurch he gave us a most enjoyable program of Handel, Duparc and Mussorgsky. The two Handel arias were drawn from Handel’s two very different takes on Ovid’s Acis and Galatea. The first from the later (1718) English version “I rage, I melt, I burn!… O ruddier than the cherry tree” is a mostly comic furioso recitative and aria sung with great drama and not a little comedy by Chris but it was rather eclipsed by the next number taken from the earlier (1708) Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Polyphemus’ aria “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” is just nuts but very beautiful. It ranges from the D below the bass staff to the A above it and is a continuous series of insane intervals accompanied by a really simple and very beautiful piano part. It’s amazing anybody can sing it all let alone as well as it was done here.
This week kicks off with a concert performance of a rarity; Salieri’s Falstaff. It’s a concert performance by Voicebox:Opera in Concert. Larry Beckwith conducts the Aradia Ensemble and a cast of Voicebox stalwarts. You can catch it at 2.30pm today at the Jane Mallett Theatre.
There are two free events on Tuesday. Chris Purves, Alberich in the COC’s Siegfried, has a lunchtime recital in the RBA with Liz Upchurch at the piano. The programme includes Mussorgsky, Handel and Duparc. At 8pm in the Victoria College chapel you can catch Dean Burry’s graduate recital as he finishes up his PhD. Soon perhaps Canada’s most performed composer will no longer be a lowly TA. Oh the joys of credentialism!
François Girard’s Siegfried, a revival of his 2006 production, opened last night at the COC. Despite using the same basic set concept as Atom Egoyan’s Die Walküre, Girard’s Siegfried, has a rather different look and feel. The fragments of Valhalla and the remains of Yggdrassil are still there but they are supplemented in imaginative fashion by a corps of supers and acrobats who play a key role in shaping the scenes. For example, in the opening scene we have Yggdrassil festooned with bodies, as if some enormous shrike were in residence. Some of these are dummies and some aerialists who come into the drama at key points. The flames in Siegfried’s forge are human arms. Acrobats make a very effective Fafner in the Niedhöhle scene and the flames around Brünnhilde’s rock are human too. Most of the characters are dressed in sort of white pyjamas which makes for a very monochromatic effect on the mostly dark stage. The one visual incongruity is the “bear” who is present, tied to Yggdrassil, throughout Act 1. Frankly it looks less like a bear than John Tomlinson after a night on the tiles. Still, all in all, the production is effective without being especially revelatory.
The Canadian Opera Company has just announced the 2015/16 season line up for the free lunchtime concert series in Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Now under the curatorship of Claire Morley there’s the usual incredible array of chamber music, dance, piano, jazz and world music as as well as, of course, the vocal series.
In George Benjamin’s Written on Skin The Man, The Protector, is described as “addicted to purity and violence”. One could perhaps say the same about the score. Seeing it presented in a minimally staged version at Roy Thomson Hall last night perhaps emphasised those aspects compared to watching a fully staged version (review of Katie Mitchell’s production at the ROH here). Being able to see the conductor and orchestra made the combination of a traditional orchestra with older instruments; viola da gamba, glass harmonica etc (and lots of percussion) more obvious. The music can be very violent but it can also be incredibly quiet and it’s a measure of Benjamin’s skill as a conductor that through these extreme changes of dynamics he rarely, if ever, covered his singers.
Bejun Mehta, Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan in the ROH production
There’s 20cm of snow on the ground and more forecast. The groundhog consensus is a long winter. So, here are a few upcoming concerts and other events that may help get you through the rest of the winter.
On February 17th mezzo Janina Baechle, violist Keith Hamm and pianist Rachel Andrist are performing works by Mahler, Brahms and Leoffler in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon. Also in the RBA at noon on the 19th there is the annual concert featuring artists from the Ensemble Studio and Montreal’s YAP the Atelier lyrique. And on the 24th, but at 5.30pm Barbara Hannigan and others are presenting works by Chausson and Schoenberg. All these concerts are free.
The Perfect American is the ironic title of Philip Glass’ latest opera which premiered in Madrid last year. It’s about Walt Disney and set at the end of his life looking back at his life and forward to his death. It’s a not very flattering portrait. It depicts Disney as blinkered, racist, virulently anti-Communist and, in fact, only comfortable with a sort of Leave it to Beaver America; though passionate about that.
Written on Skin; music by George Benjamin, text by Martin Crimp, was first seen at the Aix en Provence festival in 2012. The following yewar it was given, in the same production by Katie Mitchell and with substantially the same cast, at Covent Garden. Both versions were televised and now the ROH version has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s an unusual, complex and rewarding work. 21st century angels decide, for reasons not entirely clear, to return to the 13th century to create and participate in a human drama. The medieval humans are The Protector; a rich man of mature years utterly confident of his privileged position and his own righteousness, and his wife Agnès; younger, illiterate, downtrodden. Into their world comes The Boy; one of the angels in fact, who will create for The Protector an illuminated book; a precious object celebrating his wealth and worthiness. Inevitably, The Boy and Agnès fall in love and The Protector’s revenge, whipped up by the angels, is quite revoltingly violent. It’s essentially a simple and classic plot but Crimp shapes it skilfully with carefully placed anachronisms and by using the device of having the characters, sometimes, narrate their own actions in the third person. Benjamin’s score is in a modern idiom. He’s not afraid of atonality and he uses a very wide range of colours to create a score that ranges from meditational to almost unbearably violent. Certainly words and music work together here to great effect.