Sunday 10 May 2020

A Life On-Line: Prince Igor, Ermione, Don Carlos and a choir of cats, sheep and cows

Borodin: Prince Igor - Ildar Abdrazakov - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Borodin: Prince Igor - Ildar Abdrazakov - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)

As with performers, with lock-down composers are having to find new ways of communicating with their audiences. The composer Edward Nesbitt has collaborated with ethnomusicologist Thomas Hodgson (both colleagues in the Music Department at King's College, London) and with counter-tenor Michael Wood (in Edinburgh) to create Acalantida, a new piece about a nightingale setting a riddle by the 7th Century English bishop, St Adhelm. The result, combines Wood's counter-tenor with Hodgson's keyboards and with a nightingale singing outside Hodgson's window. It is available on SoundCloud.

Violinist Linus Roth has been tempting us on Instagram with excerpts from his new recording of the original version of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, which is going to be issued on Challenge Records. Over on Facebook, pianist Charles Owen was performing one of Schumann's Arabesques, and soprano Natalya Romaniw joined soprano Nadine Benjamin on Facebook Live to chat about the creation of Romaniw's new disc, with pianist Lada Valesova, Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul [see my review]

Counter-tenor Clint van der Linde, in Belgium, [van der Linde sang the title role in English Touring Opera's recent production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, see my review] joined pianist Charles de Villiers, in Zurich, to perform Schubert's Nacht und Traume on YouTube. Soprano Clare Norburn has been singing a May song each day since 1 May, all from her window. On 6 May, she moved away from Early Music to give us something from Camelot!  And continuing the non-classical theme, baritone Jamie Hall gave us a lovely version Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah on Twitter.

It was pianist Nigel Foster who pointed me in the direction of this delightfully barmy version of Eric Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1, as performed by a choir of cats, sheep and cows, on YouTube.

Borodin's Prince Igor is one of the great problem operas, too good to throw away yet never quite satisfactory. That Borodin never quite finished either music or words means that what survives is a collection of tantalising fragments which various people have fitted together. Whilst the music has been dismissed as colonial orientalist fantasy, and as such deserving of oblivion, that Borodin was himself Georgian (the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman) and that the piece is full of such good tunes means that there is much to consider in the work. Last time I saw it in London, it was in a very traditional Russian production, taking the piece at face value and cutting it heavily. The big advantage of the edition of the opera created by director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda for Tcherniakov's production at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 was that the piece had been entirely re-thought, returning to Borodin's original sketches and including material, such as Igor's Act Three monologue, which had been discarded by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov when creating their version of the opera.

We caught up with Tcherniakov's production of Prince Igor on Monday when the 2014 performance was broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera. Gianandrea Noseda conducted with Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, with Mikhail Petrenko, Sergey Semishkur, Oksana Dyka, Anita Rachvelishvili and Stefan Kocan. The performances were terrific, with Abdrazakov really making the most of the more introspective nature of the title role in this edition. Tcherniakov staged the Polovtsian Act as pure fantasy as Igor lay unconscious after battle. But the other acts were all constricted by the rather plain fixed set, and a tendency to have the chorus in serried ranks. But, set in the 1920s or 1930s it was an admirable attempt to make the piece's tensions work without the orientalising aspect.

On Tuesday it was the turn of another rarity, Rossini's Ermione in a performance from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, courtesy of OperaVision, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the work's (unsuccessful) premiere there. Ermione is one of a sequence of works that Rossini wrote for Naples, where he had a stable, well-funded company and he was able to experiment. Not every experiment succeeded, and Ermione pushed the bounds some-what with its focus on the title role, written for Rossini's mistress Isabella Colbran, including the way that the entire second half of the second act is focussed solely on Ermione. Jacopo Spirei's production was contemporary yet neo-classically inspired. It did not light any fires, but made a very elegant setting for the vocal set pieces and here Spirei and conductor Alessandro De Marchi drew out some fireworks. Ermione seems to be a role that Angela Meade was born to play and she produced fireworks of every type, and she and John Irvin as Pirro (the man she loves and whom betrays her or not, the plot is complex) really knocked sparks off each other. Terrific stuff, with great support from Antonino Siragusa as Oreste, Filippo Adami as Pilade and Teresa Iervolino as Andromaca.

Friday, we celebrated VE day by watching an opera premiered in Munich in 1942, and apparently a conversation about art. But, as productions such as that by Stephen Medcalf at Grange Park Opera, have shown Richard Strauss' Capriccio is far more complex than that. Interestingly, whilst I have seen Strauss' other period operas, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Arabella, in productions set during the periods that Strauss and his librettists intended, it seems that Capriccio is fated always to be set during the 20th century. John Cox's production of the opera is iconic, versions of it have been seen at Glyndebourne, La Monnaie in Brussels, Covent Garden and a number of American opera houses. I saw Cox's production at La Monnaie in the 1980s conducted by John Pritchard with Felicity Lott as the Countess in a performance that remains burned in the memory,  and Lott was again the Countess with Bernard Haitink conducting when I saw it at Glyndebourne a few years later, with Hugues Cuenod as Monsieur Taupe! In fact there wasn't one John Cox production but many, with various designers.

The Metropolitan Opera's production started out life in the 1990s but for the 2011 revival, there were entirely new sets but in the same traditional mould. Renee Fleming made a delightful Countess with Sarah Connolly stylish and sharp as Clairon, and Peter Rose as a very sympathetic La Roche. Andrew Davis conducted, and there was much indeed to enjoy. I would probably have found the auditorium at the Met rather too big for my taste for this opera (I prefer it on a relatively small scale), but the video version brought the right degree of intimacy to it.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Ildebrando D'Arcangelo - L'Opera Royal de Wallonie
On Saturday, we caught up with Verdi's Don Carlos from l'Opéra Royal de Wallonie, which is based in Liege, courtesy of France TV.. The company was 200 years old this season (the Theatre Royal de Liège was inaugurated in 1820, and the Opéra royal de Wallonie created in 1967 based on the former opera company of the Théâtre royal de Liège and that of Verviers) and the production was part of the celebrations. A grand affair, using Verdi's 1867 original version in French with the prelude and opening scene restored, but without the ballet. This featured a strong cast, with Gregory Kunde as Don Carlos, Yolanda Auyanet as Elisabeth, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Philippe, Kate Aldrich as Eboli, Lionel Lhote as Rodrigue (the only major role sung by a Francophone singer) and Roberto Scandiuzzi as Le Grand inquisiteur, conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni. Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera's production was very tradition, with Fernand Ruiz's rich costumes emulating the images from paintings of the era, and Gary McCann's imaginative realistic sets. The result had, perhaps, a little stiffness to it, inevitable given the social mores of the era being evoked and the heaviness of the costuming. But
Mazzonis di Pralafera's direction did have an element of stand and deliver about it, but this was compensated for by the fine performances from all concerned, an impressively balanced cast in what was a very full version of the opera with nearly 4 hours of music.

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