Sunday, 5 April 2020

A life on line: the Metropolitan Opera in Poulenc, Verdi and John Adams, the corno da tirarsi, and not forgetting the Louloubelles


With the removal of live performance and the usual personal interactions of musical life, all our lives have changed significantly. Like many people, my cultural life has moved far more on-line, becoming an end in itself rather than simply a way of catching up on live events which have been missed. Many people and organisations seem to be experimenting with the possibilities that technology brings.

Groups like Eboracum Baroque are giving regular coffee concerts via Zoom, and members of The Telling are giving weekly on-line workshops, whilst I know that a number of amateur groups, my own choir London Concord Singers included, have been experimenting with using Zoom for rehearsals, though the technology is too limited to be able to sing together.

What can be achieved, though, is remarkable and the Oxford Lieder Festival replaced its Spring Song weekend with a series of on-line events, Social DistanSong which including performances which singer and pianist had recorded remotely, a remarkable feat and an imaginative response to the challenge, often using Social Media to distribute.

Soprano Louise Alder has created the Louloubelles, a close-harmony group which has been giving some delightful renditions of mid-Century popular songs (and the Flower Maiden's scene from Parsifal). Tenor, Jorge Navarro Colorado has recorded one of Paul Carr's songs, accompanied remotely by Paul, on YouTube but also a multi-tracked Gastoldi madrigal. Horn player Anneke Scott is playing #AChoraleADay on the corno da tirarsi, an unusual Baroque horn which Bach wrote for. And a number of organists seem to be taking the time to work their way through Bach, and publish and on-line #BachAThon. And there are many more

My own activity has gone on-line too. Next week I will be starting to conduct interviews via Skype, something I have done before but which is now a necessity. However, it means that we can still keep talking to each other and exploring musical culture. And having caught up on our television watching (you can only cope with so many Scandi-Noir series) we have been exploring on-line opera offerings.

Poulenc: Les Dialogues des Carmelites - Metropolitan Opera
Poulenc: Les Dialogues des Carmelites - Metropolitan Opera
This week it seems to have been the turn of the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
On Tuesday we watch John Dexter's iconic 1977 production of Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites in a video of a 2019 revival conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin with Isabel Leonard as Blanche, Karen Cargill as Mere Marie, Adrianne Pieczonka as the Young Prioress, Karita Mattila as the Old Prioress and Erin Morley as Constance. Dexter's production is sparse and striking (evidently it was of necessity low budget, but Dexter made a virtue of this), and I loved the very 1970s designs (including a grill which was wonderfully abstract). You did not get the benefit of the full production watching on a laptop (our home technology does not run to get opera on demand on our TV), but the performance was still striking. Perhaps Mattila, filmed in close focus, came over as a bit too histrionic whereas in the theatre it would have carried differently, but Karen Cargill was wonderfully poised and finely musical as Mere Marie. Isabel Leonard was very contained and focused as Blanche, tightly unravelling as the opera progressed, though as Leonard is a mezzo-soprano the role sat differently in her voice and she felt less fragile than many sopranos in the role (the first Blanche I heard was Felicity Lott, and another memorable one was Susan Chilcott).

On Thursday, we caught up with the Met's performance of John Adams' Nixon in China, conducted by the composer himself, the 2011 performance in Peter Sellars' production which was created for English National Opera (see my review) and based on the original sets from Houston Grand Opera. As ever, Janis Kelly and James Maddalena impressed as the Nixons, creating a real sense of the characters, but watching the piece on the small screen I was struck by the strangeness of it as the realism from Act One gradually unravels. The whole dance scene in Act Two, where the Nixons interact with a ballet which they think is real, I still find a little problematic and then in Act Three we find ourselves listening in on the characters' inner lives. Perhaps Sellars' production, iconic at the time, is now looking a little too conventional, all that moved about scenery and the use of a drop curtain, and that it is time for a more conceptual look at the opera.

Our final opera this week was another one from the Met, Verdi's Don Carlo in five acts but in Italian, from 2010 again conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip, Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, Roberto Alagna as Don Carlo, Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo, Ann Smirnova as Eboli. Nicholas Hyntner's production is familiar from Covent Garden (see my review) but it was fascinating to see the (unsatisfactory) original version of the Auto da Fe scene. The video used quite a lot of filmic techniques, particularly in the more sparse scenes, so that quite often you lost sight of the proscenium and felt taken into the action. The problem with this, of course, is that opera singers do not act for the camera but for the wider theatre.

Alagna was a bit stiff as Don Carlo, but in fine vocal form though it seemed perverse to hire a French-speaking singer who has recorded the (correct) French version of the opera and get him to sing it in Italian translation, but there we are. Poplavskaya (a somewhat uneven artist latterly) was wonderful as Elisabeth, everything that we wanted with a fine sense of line, and Furlanetto does make a moving Philip. Keenlyside's Rodrigo was familiar, but it was great to see and hear it close to.

Whilst the visuals at home were limited to our 17 inch laptop, we were able to listen in good stereo sound and what we both noticed was how variable the sound was. Listening to three operas on the trot, the different sets seemed to create a different focus to the sound, and sometimes the acoustics seemed to vary within the performance.

However, whatever the limitations it was a fine way of catching up on performances that were unlikely to have ever seen live. Our explorations continue!

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