Tuesday 2 January 2007

In this month's Opera magazine

This month’s opera seems to have a mini-theme running through it. There are three different mentions of Almaviva’s Act 2 aria from The Barber of Seville, the one that is usually cut and which Rossini re-cycled for Cenerentola’s final aria. Philip Gossett, in his new book, evidently refute the defence of the traditional cutting of the aria, which is good news. But Julian Budden, in his review of the opera performed in Florence, is virulent in his dislike of the aria, describing it as ‘a shameless concession to a star singer’ and he describes Rossini as being happy to see the aria dropped. Though of course, that might be because of its difficulty. At the New York Met Juan Diego Florez impressed Martin Bernheimer when the aria was included in performances there.

In the editorial, the editor looks forward to possible performances of a group of operas which were all premiered in 1907: Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, Messager’s Fortunio and Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu. I’ve seen Fortunio (Grange Park Opera did it a few years ago), but would welcome the chance to see any in this list, but I’m not holding my breath.

There is a profile of Elaine Padmore, to mark the Royal Opera’s 60th birthday. It is heartening to learn that she’ll stay ‘until I’m too old to work’ After all the problems and changes of the 90’s it is good that there is now a stable regime in place. I could only wish that the same could be said of the ENO.

Covent Garden is going to be getting the new Robert Carsen production of Gluck’s Iphigenie in Tauride which debuted in Chicago. I can’t wait; I’ve still got vivid memories of hearing Eiddwenn Harrhy in the Kent Opera production at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 70’s.

One interesting little snippet though, in 1951 Sir Thomas Beecham conducted performances of Balfe’s Bohemian Girl at the Royal Opera House, little chance of that coming back I suspect. The list of operas with the most performances at the Royal Opera House over the last 60 years offers no surprises, with Puccini coming out top.

Vlaamse Opera in Ghent have recently completed a complete cycle of Puccini operas (over 15 years) with Robert Carson as producer, quite something.

Back on the subject of Covent Garden, Anne Williams-King made her debut as Katerina in Lady of Macbeth of Mtsensk when Eva Maria Westbroek was ill. Warwick Thompson was impressed and I hope that we see more of Miss Williams-King at the Garden.

Richard Law reviewed Philip Gossett’s new book (see above) and it sounds fascinating, one of our leading scholars discussing Italian opera and how it is performed, even commenting on the personalities involved; castigating such well known singers as Caballe and Sills. Mind you, Law gets off to a slightly poor start by comparing Gossett to Wilamowitx-Moellendorf, I’m not sure that many people have heard of him (I hadn’t).

It is interesting that Gossett subscribes to the view that a definitive Ur-text version of Italian Romantic opera is impossible, the form was too flexible and the composers tended to treat the performers as collaborators. Evidently the Ricordi publishing house are very co-operative when it comes to opening their archives to scholars but Verdi’s heirs are not.

As is evident from my discussion of the cut aria in Rossini’s Barber, Gossett is pretty anti cutting, but more particularly he is against traditional cuts – the blind acceptance of a cut because it has always been done. We need to get beyond this and be more careful with such things. This sort of thing is still news, after all the apparent disagreement between John Eliot Gardiner and Christoph Loy at the beginning of rehearsals for the new production of Mozart’s La Finta Giadinera meant that Loy departed the production. He’d wanted to use existing cuts whereas Gardiner wanted to examine things and choose the cuts specifically for the production – an entirely sensible attitude it seems to me.

One are where I part company from the reviewer, Richard Law, is on the subject of Verdi’s Don Carlos. Law proclaims himself a lover of the opera in Italian whereas I prefer the original French version, perhaps because of my fascination with French Grand Opera.

The gradual internationalisation of opera performances means that odd things crop up in odd places. Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf received a new performance in Argentina. The Faroe Islands (population 50,000) saw their first performance of an opera by a native composer, Sunleif Rasmussen. Hilary Finch’s review was complimentary and I must look out for the forthcoming CD. The Berlin Staatsoper saw a new production of Maria Stuarda. Not in itself unusual, but when set as a re-run of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane the results are certain to rouse curiosity at least.

Wexford has a new artistic director. Under the previous one, creeping internationalisation meant the critics worried that the festival was losing its distinctive Irish feel. Under Canadian David Agler things look set to improve. The festival has its own orchestra now, employing Irish musicians rather than an Eastern European orchestra and the number of Irish singers seems to have increased. And of course, they are building a new opera house. I can’t wait.

Graham Vick’s new production of The Makropoulos Case in Copenhagen seems to have had what the recent ENO production lacked, a superb diva in the title role. In this case it was Gitta-Maria Sjoberg; a name new to me, but she looks superb in the picture.

Scottish Opera’s new production of Handel’s Tamerlano does not seem to have gone down well, which is a shame. It was a daring/imaginative/foolish piece of programming and would have been quite a coup to bring off, but the opera is tricky. I’ve never yet seen an entirely satisfactory production, though the Cambridge Handel Society came pretty damn close. Independent Opera did better with their production of Orlando at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, though Hugh Canning was luke-warm about William Towers’s acting. We saw the production and I was impressed with Towers. Canning also moaned about cutting an hour’s worth of music. This is something that I used to worry about a lot but as I’ve got older I must confess that I do rather like getting home at a reasonable hour, so welcome discreet cuts. Though Independent Opera’s were rather more indiscreet I suspect.

Opera North’s Peter Grimes got mixed reviews from Michael Kennedy, though he says it was very powerful. Friends who saw the production loved it. The company's production of La Voix Humaine seems to have suffered from an occasionally over dominant orchestra. I have found this before in this work, a proms performance with Felicity Lott a few years ago could have done with a far stronger hand from the podium. I suspect that conductors relish Poulenc’s luxuriance a little too much and forget the type of soprano voice for which the role was written.

Duchy Opera performed Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers in Truro. Now I do wish I’d been there. I love The Wreckers. I saw a superb performance at Warwick University in the 1980’s (one that knocked the later Proms performance into a cocked hat). Sensibly Duchy Opera have reduced the orchestration to make the piece more viable, but even more sensibly they have commissioned a new translation from Amanda Holden. It is appalling that the work has never been performed in its original French; the librettist Harry Brewster was a poet who wrote prose in English but poetry in French so his libretto was in French. The original English version was a thrown together stop-gap when performances in French fell through (there was a slight possibility of Messager bringing a French company to Covent Garden and producing it, now that would have been something). I’d like to thing that this might lead to more performances, but I won’t hold my breath.

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