ARTS & CULTURE- IN- PERFORMANCE

THE IRISH SCENE REVIEWED

  

Sandra Oman

The Bugle Babes

George Fleeton

Two very contrasting musical events in Dublin’s National Concert Hall:

Operatic soprano Sandra Oman launching her first CD (September 23); and

The Bugle Babes - Derby Browne, Eileen Coyle and Lou van Laake - with their tribute to the Andrews Sisters (September 25).

Liberty

Proud of her roots in the inner city Liberties neighbourhood, each of the songs in Sandra Oman’s concert programme had a connection (sometimes quite tenuous) to the movies, not an original concept but in her case delivered with panache, a self-belief reinforced by many years singing opera and recitals and consummate ease in her chosen cross-over repertory.

Bits and pieces from Carmen, Gianni Schicchi, The Bohemian Girl, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Porgy and Bess and La Traviata loosely represented the old guard; but, not being a fan of recent lyrics added to Morricone’s music for Cinema Paradiso nor to Nino Rota’s music for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Coppola’s Godfather, let me pass gently on to personal preferences from the programme.

These were:

Legrand’s Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi (from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg);

Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt;

Piazzolla’s tango Oblivion;

Piaf’s La vie en rose and

Poulenc’s valse chantée Les chemins de l’amour – all what you might call crème de la crème music.

Aiding and abetting Ms Oman on the night were guest tenors Owen Gilhooly and Mark Duff, baritone Simon Morgan and bass John Molloy, always ready to steal a scene, while David Wray’s five-piece ensemble smiled the whole way through some excellent music making.    

The
Liberty   album  marks for Sandra Oman more than two decades as the most fearless and versatile of Irish sopranos; and she has nothing to worry about: English mezzo Rosalind Plowright issued her first solo album (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, reviewed here in May 2014) for her 65th birthday.  

www.sandraoman.com

The Bugle Babes

The Andrews Sisters were an exceptional close harmony singing group whose heyday stretched from 1938 till about 1950.

It is over four years since my last encounter with the Bugle Babes and their spirited, vocally syncopated renditions of the Andrews Sisters’ songbook are still infectious while the harmonising remains selflessly faithful to the origins of this wonderful music.

So in a more compact programme this time we were offered:

Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree, Rum & Coca-Cola and Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (their first no. 1 Billboard magazine hit from 1938).

There too were Straighten up & Fly Right, In Apple Blossom Time and, their signature song, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, followed by Don’t Fence Me In, Accentuate the Positive, Mr Sandman … and finishing up with two Glenn Miller pieces Chattanooga Choo Choo and In the Mood – doesn’t the mere mention of those titles immediately conjure up the music in your head?

Many of these songs were first heard in the dozen or so B movies which the Andrews Sisters made at Universal Pictures during WW2 and, in parallel with those movies, they had unprecedented followings on radio, on early television and on vinyl in the juke-boxes, just as vinyl was replacing shellac as the material of choice for phonograph records and just before transistor radios arrived to change the soundscape for all of us.

(But from the early 1950s the personal relationships of the three sisters were conducted in anything but close harmony; and Patty the youngest was the last to die, nearly three years ago, at almost 95).

At the NCH David Wray, again as music director, made his ensemble of six sound like a Big Band as The Bugle Babes continued to capture the mood and the moves, the segues, shimmies and sashays of the Andrews Sisters at the zenith of their popularity; so thank you – from the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkle and all our friends in a capella barbershop.

www.buglebabes.com

©georgefleetonmmxv


 

 

     

Ivan Ilić

Beethoven, Reicha (and Chopin)

George Fleeton

My first couple of piano lessons (there were only two) did not go to plan; I was about eight, Miss Smith must have been sixty-eight, and the theory so completely discombobulated me that I took up singing.

The theory (this was around 1952) went as follows: focus on your whole body; excellence is achieved by dropping/levering/raising and/or rotating the lower arm and the wrist (there wasn’t a word about the fingers).

The next day I excused myself and went off to learn, inter alia,  Mozart’s little motet Ave verum corpus which became my Benediction, An Tóstal and Feis piece for several years.

Why all this crossed my mind at Ivan Ilić’s lunchtime recital in the National Concert Hall Dublin (June 05) is not clear.

Ilić’s pianism is so full of self-belief, so relaxed, so undemonstrative that he makes us believe in the music, in an interpretation that invites us to think about what we are listening to.

Music is our most refined language and we are totally at liberty to absorb it through our two primary senses and to let it drizzle down into our imaginations wherefrom, if we wish, it can inspire us for ever.

His programme of Beethoven (a rondo and an unpublished set of variations) and Anton Reicha (a selection of fugues) celebrated their lifelong friendship from when they were young rival composers in Vienna; two Chopin nocturnes, more familiar perhaps to an attentive audience, wound up the event.

When I first reviewed Ivan Ilić recitals (Downpatrick, May 2009 and 2012) I wrote of refined and self-assured readings evoking delicately spun silk or translucent sculpture, each of them materials which let the light pass through: this is still indisputably the case, and must make Miss Smith very happy indeed.

Ilić always includes Ireland, north and south, city and county, in his annual recital tours, and those of us who appreciate an encounter with his love of music go to great lengths not to miss him: e.g. Castletownshend on July 31.

www.ivancdg.com

©georgefleetonmmxv


6th Lismore Music Festival

George Fleeton

ONE of many pleasures during a fourth consecutive visit to Lismore Co Waterford last month was to discover Lismore Castle Arts which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

It continues to host ambitious programmes of exhibitions, education projects and special events, which this year also  included my pre-performance talk introducing Lismore Music Festival’s production of Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola on May 30 and 31.

Other regular pleasures over the years at this event (rural Ireland’s only summer opera festival) have been the Recitals, each day of the weekend at high noon, in Cappoquin and Salterbridge historic houses & gardens, both situated nearby above the Blackwater valley.

These recitals are always well supported, small consolation however for a hard-working Festival team which is ‘not in receipt of any Arts Funding’.

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ON May 30 in Cappoquin soprano Sandra Oman and mezzo Norah King sang a resounding and convincing programme of songs, accompanied by Roy Holmes.

The soprano pieces included Morgana’s aria from Handel’s Alcina, Despina’s brash and cheeky In uomini, in soldati from Mozart’s Così and Susanna’s tease Deh vieni, non tardar from his Figaro.

Then we met Mimì introducing herself (to Rodolfo) in Puccini’s Bohème and Rusalka’s Song to the moon (Dvořák).

This was a selection of higher level arias which confirmed Sandra Oman’s status as the most fearless and versatile doyenne of Irish sopranos.

For the original programme that day not only one singer but two were indisposed, so the equally fearless mezzo Norah King stepped in at the 11th hour (literally 11.00a.m.) to complete this Recital with music ranging across Dorabella’s agitated Smanie implacabili from Così, Poulenc’s valse chantée Chemins de l’amour, Carmen’s Habanera (Bizet) and Rosina’s Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Barbiere.

These two voices then joined their considerable forces to cap a splendid Recital with two contrasting duets: Mozart’s duettino Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto from Figaro, and Offenbach’s Venetian-styled Barcarolle from his Contes d’Hoffmann.

Later that evening, transformed into Cinderella’s step-sisters, Oman and King would deliver another tour de force team performance at Lismore Castle’s pop-up opera house in Rossini’s Cenerentola.

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THE second Festival Recital (May 31) took place in Salterbridge House where Sandra Oman introduced three young singers currently studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music; they too were accompanied by Roy Holmes on piano.

Lorna Breen, soprano, as Cleopatra in Handel’s most performed opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto, gave a sterling reading  of the serene and beautiful aria Se pietà di me non senti (preceded by its more dramatic accompagnato Che sento? Oh Dio!)

She followed this with Ilia’s opening aria from Mozart’s classical drama Idomeneo - Padre, germani, addio! And she concluded her solo programme with Frank Bridge’s song Love went a-riding.   

Peter Manning is a baritone with an abundance of potential, which we heard to great effect in Achilla’s stern and vigorous aria, again from Giulio Cesare - Tu sei il cor di questo core; and also in Figaro’s declaration of war against his boss Almaviva: from now on you dance to my tune -  Se vuol ballare, signor Contino.    

He chose to finish his solo programme with Javert’s Stars from Les Misérables but it didn’t seem to sit as comfortably yet in his voice.

Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Holt’s voice appeared the more settled of the three and her choice of repertoire was daunting.

From Handel’s Serse: Se bramate d’amar   was a significant virtuoso piece with which to start any recital; then Sesto’s marathon piece Deh, per questo istante solo from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito; and finally Charlotte’s Va! Laisse couler mes larmes from Massenet’s sentimental tragedy Werther, with its premonition (it always seems to me) of Tosca’s crie de coeur O Lord, I’ve been a good girl, why do you do this to me / perché me ne rimuneri così?

Peter and Lorna then literally joined hands for Giovanni and Zerlina’s seduction duet Là ci darem la mano (Mozart); and together with Carolyn they ended the recital, all too soon, with one of the most beautiful, short pieces of music anywhere in opera, the terzetto Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte, which is the Mozart opera chosen for the 7th Lismore Music Festival, June bank holiday weekend, 2016.

These three singers, on the threshold of promising careers, were mentored by Sandra Oman and we wish them every blessing and success in the difficult vocation they have embraced.

The coda to this recital was Novello’s We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again from his 1945 West End musical Perchance to Dream, one of the songs which I understand will feature on Sandra’s first solo album Liberty, presently in production.

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FINALLY my Festival programme article on the composer Rossini, and the text of my talk (prior to the two performances of his opera La Cenerentola in Lismore Castle’s upper stable yard), have already been published herewith.

©georgefleetonmmxv

www.lismorecastlearts.ie

www.lismoremusicfestival.com


LA CENERENTOLA

George Fleeton

This is the text of my pre-performance talk given at Lismore Music Festival Co. Waterford in Lismore Castle’s art gallery to introduce the Festival production of Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola on May 30 and 31.

For this 6th annual Lismore Music Festival – and for the first time there - I explored the music and the popularity of the opera on both evenings of performance by addressing Cenerentola as a particularly fine example of Rossini’s output and his talents for making music which still delights us 200 years later.

La Cenerentola is based on the romantic fairy tale which we know as Cinderella; and it was Rossini’s 20th opera out of 39.

The Barber of Seville is his best known work, and William Tell was his final composition for the lyric stage .

When Cenerentola opened in Rome in January 1817, the composer was 25 years old and he conducted the first night performance from the keyboard.

The reception was very positive and his popularity was cemented into European music history.

This opera is one of about a thousand variations of the Cinderella story; in his version, Rossini however did not use the ‘magic’ elements of other variants (e.g. no wicked step-mother, or fairy godmother, nor a pumpkin pulled by mice transformed into a coach and horses).

It is rather the bass-voiced character of Alidoro who is the catalyst, the guardian angel, for the romance between the disguised but distinguished Prince Ramiro and the much-abused Angelina, and matching silver bracelets – not glass slippers – are the key props in bringing their story to a happy conclusion in which Angelina’s innate goodness and pure heart will triumph as she progresses from waif to heroine.

The dominant tone is less sentimental comedy more comedy with an edge, an agenda, which asks us to take it seriously – for a while.

The part of Angelina was written for a contralto, a relatively rare voice type today, so it is generally interpreted by a mezzo-soprano - in Lismore’s production by Carolyn Dobbin.

There is also have a high tenor, and two bass voices that are distinct yet well matched, and of course the requisite pair of glamorous but selfish step-sisters.

The opening scene is set in Angelina’s father’s somewhat decrepit castle – light years away of course from the splendid example of 19th C castle architecture which is Lismore where we were the guests of the Burlingtons.

Angelina’s ghastly step-sisters are called Clorinda (Sandra Oman) and Tisbe (Norah King, deputising at the last possible moment), and their father barely deserves the title Don Magnifico.

The opera starts strongly and in the first quarter hour we have some vintage Rossini: top class overture, step-sisters’ duet, Angelina’s theme aria, a busy quartet when Alidoro arrives, and a crescendo chorus.

200 years ago Rossini injected new life into tired 18th C formulas; high tenors were replacing the castrati, his sound world had both light and shade, he gave singers an elaborate canvas on which to showcase their vocal talents; he wrote out in full his vocal decorations and he put energetic rhythms into the orchestral scoring (where his most famous conceit was the crescendo which built higher and higher and was repeated again and again).

He then filled all this up with delicate, sentimental and balanced lyrical melodies; for he believed that the singing voice was the aesthetic constant which linked beauty of tone and melody with emotional expressiveness: words must be subservient to music, he said, repeating the central idea of an earlier opera by Salieri Prima la musica e poi le parole.

Indeed Rossini was the prime mover in the development of an operatic repertoire of works (opera is the plural of the Latin word opus, meaning 'work') which are revived today countless times in numerous venues worldwide.

This is because very few 20th C operas have aroused such interest, so we delve into the back catalogue constantly repeating and expanding the historic repertory.

In great opera the singer becomes the character and the music is a seamless flow from a fictional soul to an enraptured audience – at least that is the ideal striven for by composer, director and singers.

We suspend our disbelief, we surrender to the magic of theatrical catharsis and we associate with the musical emotions on stage; we escape in other words for an hour or two and return refreshed and the better for it.

Like Mozart before him Rossini stamped his comic vision, and such refreshing encounters with great music, permanently on our operatic passports.

I’ve always believed that what makes Cenerentola different from Rossini’s other comic operas is his evident affection for the character of Angelina, and the manner by which he charts her progress from scullery maid to princess; was he in love with his little heroines, as Mozart had been a generation earlier, as Puccini would be many decades later?

Our heroine, Angelina, alters measurably in vocal character as her melodramatic situation changes, and she does not have a dull bar to sing in the entire opera.

Her initial theme song is simple and genuinely affecting; she pleads to be allowed to go to the ball in  phrases so poignant that they live on, resonating in the ear; and she gains dignity and self-confidence in her new role as Princess sharing equal status  with her new Prince-husband.

In the final aria of the opera (one of the most difficult and brilliant of coloratura arias) she comes right out of her closet and shows herself to be generous, compassionate, and capable of managing both her dysfunctional family and her marriage and responsibilities as princess.

For Angelina is simply one of the most rounded and credible characters in all of comic opera; a character who matures musically and emotionally right in front of us, from her simple, unadorned music in Act 1 to the celebratory music of forgiveness and reconciliation in Act 2 during which the others listen in comparative silence and reluctant admiration; she may have been born to sorrow and weeping but there will be no more sitting alone and sad by the fireside…

This is a redemption opera:  a fairy-tale stripped of its childish and child-like elements to reveal a girl’s quest (she is always a classical 19th C romantic heroine) for love and acceptance, both from her family and in her new life; this gives the opera that slight underlying seriousness, which I mentioned earlier, as she struggles to find her identity while her malicious family distorts the truth about her.

Rossini’s writing for the voice is rich and full-blooded, requiring phenomenal vocal agility, with his incomparable ensembles which helped to establish the brilliance of his imagination for writing comedy, and which fills our heads, on the way home,  with the quicksilver sounds of his mellifluous and well-behaved music. 

The best studio recordings of this opera on CD – a personal view – are those of Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza (Deutsche Grammophon 1971), and the Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli (Decca 1993).

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On behalf of Festival, thank you very much for your support for what we do in such a difficult economic climate for music in performance in Ireland: it is greatly appreciated.

Next year at Lismore Music Festival our production will be Mozart’s comedy of manners Così fan tutte (his 15th opera, first given in Vienna in 1790) with performances on June 04 and o5, 2016; full details later at www.lismoremusicfestival.com

   

©georgefleetonmmxv


Rossini

Opera’s most retiring composer

George Fleeton   

This article first appeared in the Programme for La Cenerentola at the 6th annual Lismore Music Festival in Co. Waterford on May 30 and 31: www.lismoremusicfestival.com

 

GIOACHINO Rossini was 37 when he took early retirement from composing operas; he died when he was 76.

He had written thirty-nine operas in less than nineteen years, the very first of which (La cambiale di matrimonio, Venezia, 1810) was given in Wexford six years ago.

If you are to catch any Rossini operas, anywhere today, there are four which simply must be at the top of your wish list: L’Italiana in Algeri (a buffa masterpiece), Il Barbiere di Siviglia (produced at Lismore three years ago), La Cenerentola (Cinderella for beginners and fairy-tale buffs alike) and Guillaume Tell (Paris 1829) which was, for him, a most uncharacteristic, patriotic mélodrame, and his final opera.

There are other Rossini creations which I can personally vouch for – La Scala di Seta, Tancredi, Il Turco in Italia, Otello, La Gazza Ladra, La Donna del Lago, Semiramide and Le Comte Ory - all excellent pieces but all of them, at least in my case, had to be seen abroad.

SO what did Rossini do for the last thirty-nine years of his life?

When I visited his final resting place, alongside Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Firenze many years ago (imagine the midnight parties those four had), I asked that very question of a well-briefed guide, who told me privately afterwards that he had not been programmed to deal with such matters!

So that set me off searching, in an era before the internet.

The story was not that clear cut.

Rossini had retired at about the age at which Mozart, Bellini and Bizet had died – their work far from finished.

Was he simply astute enough to bow out at the peak of his powers and at the height of his popularity (like Tony McCoy, in April 2015)?

Did he sense a change in the direction of the winds of audience taste in opera and did he then suspect that he could not compete in a new era in which romanticism in opera was clearly in transition?

Anna Bolena (Donizetti) and La Sonnambula (Bellini) were just about to take opera to new places at that time (the early 1830s) where the demands for grandeur and nobility in the music where not the things in which Rossini specialised.

The death of his mother Anna – an accomplished singer - left him grief-stricken; his health, physical and mental, was indifferent, to put it mildly, yet he maintained (not unlike many of his operatic creatures) a genial but superficial life-style, through middle age and beyond, as a wealthy bon viveur and gourmet.

He did however go on to compose two significant religious works (a Stabat Mater and the Petite messe solonnelle), the Regata Veneziana, his most interesting song cycle (seek out Tebaldi’s recording of this, by the way, as a special treat) and what he called his sins of old age Péchés de vieillesse (dozens of pieces of salon music for piano, and for voice). 

Question for everyone in the audience: can you name another leading composer of opera who spent the second half of his life span notcomposing operas?

ROSSINI singlehandedly invented Italian opera as we know and appreciate it two centuries later, for he gave an entirely innovative thrust to dramma per musica which owed little or nothing to his forbearers Mozart, Gluck, Handel and Monteverdi.

He was the advance guard for fundamental change in how opera was written, performed and sung in post-revolutionary, Napoleonic Europe.

One example: he invented the overture, attacking our ears with strategically paced, wide awake music which often had nothing to do with the opera itself (slow intro, fast snatches, great crescendo, unexpected changes of rhythm, all ending with a big bang: hands up if you can listen to the fourth segment of the William Tell overture - without thinking of your man, you know, the one with the black domino mask, what’s his name..?)

And Rossini unashamedly and frequently borrowed themes for overtures, when it suited him, from some of his earlier operas.

He was the orchestrator par excellence, as prodigiously gifted in his own way as Mozart, always intent and content to ensure everyone, cast, band and audience, had a really great night out.

Rossini’s   trademark ensembles, for instance, had characters who, while standing around actually doing nothing (to advance the narrative), wondered out loud, in smashing vocal style, what they should be doing, indeed sometimes what they were doing in that particular  opera at all (at all)!

BUT it was his understanding of the voice which made the outward expression of his inner musical imagination second to no one; that is, without the note-spinning, vocal exhibitionism of his contemporaries.

Instead Rossini re-established cavatinas (languid and melancholic arias) and cabalettas (rhythmically urgent showpieces) as key elements of bel canto and so we get extravagant musical patterns (arabesques, arpeggios, runs and jumps) written simply to show how beautiful the human voice can be, in music which is always elegant and elaborate, coloured and decorated, and often inspired by and composed specifically for the imposing coloratura voice of his first wife Isabella Colbran.

Rossini’s team mates, Donizetti and Bellini, like relay runners, took all this even further, although the latter veered off track towards the more melancholic side of the sport (anticipating the music of Puccini, perhaps?), while Donizetti was more robust in his writing: funny, touching and tragic, sometimes all at once which, to my ears, makes him the most credible, most human and most versatile of the bel canto composers.

HOWEVER it was Rossini who brought a discipline and a structure to Italian opera which we, and all his successor composers, benefited from enormously and he populated it with an abundance of good tunes and new orchestral sounds, flavoured with lots of wit and sentiment.

Mastering the conventions inherited from earlier composers, he then transformed them into what came to be referred to as the ‘Code Rossini’.

This is a long way off Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk (music drama as seamless robe of words and music woven together); though probably what he and Rossini had in common was to be the only composers who wrote as many words as notes.

Il Barbiere (Rossini’s sixteenth opera, which opened in Rome the week before his 24th birthday) may well be his most enduring masterpiece but it prepared the ground less than a year later for the superb Cenerentola (1817) – an opera which showed Rossini capable of genuine tenderness and pathos in finessed writing for the coloratura mezzo-soprano voice, music with a special quality not heard again from his hand for almost three years until Donna del Lago (and the character of Elena).

Our retiring composer had begun with a vision of what opera could and should be; he then set about realising that vision, producing a whirlwind of operas in Venezia, Milano, Napoli, Roma and Paris, in two decades, and he left us a legacy which is as much at the heart and soul of the operatic repertory as that of any other composer, retired or not.

©georgefleetonmmxv


THE MERRY WIDOW

George Fleeton

The text of the  Talk  given before the performances of Lyric Opera’s production of The Merry Widow in the National Concert Hall Dublin on May 16 and 17; this operetta had been previously staged there three times, most recently in 2011; but this was the first time we explored its popularity in a pre-performance Talk.

The Merry Widow was first seen in Vienna almost 110 years ago; so in one historical sense at least it is a relatively modern composition.

The plot is as complex as a Gilbert & Sullivan piece, so let’s summarise it in one sentence: in Paris, the elderly ambassador of Pontevedro attempts to get his hands on a young widow’s fortune, in order to bail out his impoverished country, by persuading his not-too-diplomatic chargé d’affaires to marry her.

Merry Widow was Lehár’s greatest success and with it he defined what operetta is about: escapist entertainment with huge orchestration evoking a superficial, glamorous world of make-believe in which the daily currency is flirting, and so there is minimal reference to social or political events, with just a dash or two of satirical comment and irreverent wit added to the mix like salt and pepper.

The piece has a kind of trivial self-belief, with some serious worth and, like the best operettas, it delivers orchestral elaboration, engaging harmonic language and lots of vocal trills and thrills.

Unlike opera this is no little or no classical balance or single-minded purity of genre; operetta uses spoken dialogue (not recitative, which can be accompanied and sung); operetta has less elevated or intellectually engaging plots than opera, but frequently it is more artistically ambitious and crowd-pleasing.

Merry Widow has always been treated with considerable respect by musicians and audiences because the music is endlessly inventive, nostalgic, elegant and laid back, with Viennese waltzes, memorable  choruses, and the kind of substantial music-making that has and still does appeal to blue-blooded opera singers; and of course there’s Vilja, o Vilja.

Other music by Lehár include his Gold und silber waltz, yet only one other of his 40 or so works for the stage is still presented  occasionally today: his ‘Land of Smiles’, first heard in troubled Berlin in 1929.

That particular, later work, written to showcase the talents of Richard Tauber, is quite rare in another sense, namely it is an operetta with an unhappy (but not a tragic) ending; and its Chinese setting and cross-cultural love story has echoes of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot, from some years earlier.

The key to Lehár’s success in his mature years (he was nearly 80 when he died) was his enduring friendship with Richard Tauber and it was Tauber’s exceptional popularity as a tenor with a lucent, mellow tone and remarkable lyrical style which, in those early years of vinyl recordings, put Viennese operetta on the world map.

Operetta is the Italian word for ‘little opera’, little in the sense of slight, non-tragic; more comic, catchy and festive, as in The Merry Widow or its distant cousin Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus, from 30 years earlier.

These operettas belonged to the Germanic genre of opera, although kick-started in France in the late 1850s by Offenbach who was himself born educated and trained in Germany, and the secret of their success rests largely on how the narrative is advanced by the skilful negotiation of those moments when the spoken word turns to song.

So what do we get in The Merry Widow?

Other operettas may be peopled with carefree bandits, singing coachmen, accident-prone foreigners or laughing corsairs.

The Merry Widow has none of those casts of characters so it asks us to take it a bit more seriously.

What we get then is an entertaining exercise in flirtation, tied to a  plot for which suspension of disbelief is required of us; a melodrama charged with emotional encounters of all kinds and complicated by farcical misunderstandings worthy of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’.

We can relish the exotic settings of mythical Pontevedro as they go on the town to Maxim’s cabaret in Paris; and we can’t miss the sensuality of Lehar’s seemingly effortless music written and orchestrated on a large palette.

One example from the finale: when Hanna and her former lover Count Danilo finally get it together, the solo violin (her) and the cello (him) symbolically intertwine as the music then slips away into the shimmering ‘Merry Widow’ waltz which has underpinned their tempestuous relationship throughout the narrative twists and turns of the whole operetta. 

This is a superb example of a predictable story with a down-to-earth heroine.

Lots of dance forms are used as the basis for the vocal numbers and we are left with the pure bliss of singing and dancing – when there is nothing serious at stake.

Is it that difficult then not to be seduced by such clever theatrical conceits - and the magic which they create - for an hour or two?

___________________

Lyric Opera’s next fully staged production in the National Concert Hall Dublin will be Puccini’s La Bohème on October 17, 18 and 20:

www.lyricoperaproductions.com

       

Meanwhile, wearing another hat, I am producing two concerts in Co Wicklow in July, celebrating the music of Maria Callas, and the songs of the boulevards and cabarets of Paris, including the best of Édith Piaf.

Details at www.georgefleeton.com

©georgefleetonmmxv


Opera Lite … the recipe

George Fleeton

This article was first published in the Programme for Lyric Opera’s production of The Merry Widow at the National Concert Hall Dublin on May 16, 17 and 19.

It’s not fair to blame it all on Offenbach.

He made opérette an international art form, true, but that was more as part of show business than opera.

Then Franz Lehár, Johann Strauss Jnr and Arthur Sullivan, inter alia, grabbed the concept (and its undoubted popular success) close to their respective breasts until it was prised from them by the Broadway and West End-style musical theatre of the 20th century.

Here’s my recipe-with-ingredients for Opera Lite, for your consideration: witty burlesques, whimsical social comedy, subversive pastiche and mawkish sentimentality (all well stirred) though there’s little else to detain us when real life intervenes – except the music.

Of course we are light years away from the most holy trinity of Mozart, Wagner and Verdi; we are even at the other end of space from the efforts of that earlier aspirational trinity of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – after all  who among us can name a lite Bellini opera?

Yet who will argue against Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as Wagner’s only comic opera, or Falstaff as Verdi’s only farce?

In the best Opera Lite tradition, dialogue is fused with overtly theatrical set pieces in works of great verve and satirical bite (Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, La belle Hélène or La Périchole, and Strauss Jnr’s Die Fledermaus or TheGypsy Baron).

And that’s not to overlookSullivan’s top three:  HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and Mikado -an opinion which comes with all the authority ofsomeone who sang Josephine, Mabel and Yum-Yum for his supper in boarding school aeons ago.

Strauss’ father had raised the waltz to the level of art music (pace André Rieu) and Strauss Jnr, in awe of Offenbach once the French opérettes reached Vienna, embraced these two most formative influences to write lite opera of great musical fluidity and sentimental charm, but with little of the satire that had preoccupied Offenbach and would later infuse the works of Sullivan and of Lehár.

Strauss Jnr then became the undisputed maestro of Opera Lite, so we can’t attribute all your operetta-phobia-paranoia just to Offenbach.

Lehár who was Hungarian by birth largely taught himself to compose and if he was alive today his name might be Andrew Lloyd Lehár: someone who writes effortless streams of very popular musical theatre for a global audience and makes great pots of dosh in the process.

Lehár’s talent was for intoxicating melodies and rich orchestral palettes; he was in a class of his own, so much so that when Puccini thought to cash in on the genre, with La Rondine (completed in Easter week 1916 but much delayed on stage by the War), it bombed - probably because it was humourless - whereas earlier (1911) Richard Strauss did manage to join the class of Lehár with Der Rosenkavalier.

The Merry Widow , first given in the dying days of 1905, helped to delineate golden age operetta in those heady days between the excesses of la belle époque and the hellish darkness of WW1.

After the War, tenor Richard Tauber was instrumental in helping to get Lehar’s band back on the road, and that working relationship continued until they both died in 1948.

Opera snobbery since then has meant that most of the important opera houses around the world simply shunned Opera Lite and refused to tolerate it in their programming and, with top stage directors and musicians not being engaged for productions, operetta was and remains happy to live a virtually separate life in other theatres for other audiences (although frequently The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus do cross over into the big houses).

This suited so-called opera buffs who could then look down their noses at operetta, but the net result was that they ended up unfamiliar with some of the most delightful music for the theatre written since Mozart.

Lehar didn’t attempt to write stuff replete with the dramatic power of through-composed opera; he preferred to develop and to modernise the old singspiel speech-and-aria formulae.

His lite weight plots were no more, no less, ludicrous than those of many better known blood sport operas.

The Merry Widow is a case in point and it is always a winner: a plot supercharged with corny flirtatious encounters and a huge orchestra with very full scoring (to include harp, glockenspiel and tambourine).

Ingredients include lots of pantomimic misunderstandings and palettes of local colour (hats, corsets, cigarette holders and cocktails) plus exotic backgrounds featuring the lieder and dance culture of the Balkans, while Pontevedro is evoked by Vilja, mazurkas and polonaises, all infused with Viennese marches and waltzes and the whole lot poured like a rich sauce over the galop and the cancan of Paris and put in the oven to cook at 500º.

If you want second helpings, two 0f the best Hannas in cd-land - personal favourites - are Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (EMI, 1962) and Cheryl Studer (Deutsche Grammophon, 1994).                          

©georgefleetonmmxv

www.lyricoperaproductions.com


       

Salome & Faust

Die lustige Witwe & Les contes d’Hoffmann

by

George Fleeton

From one end of the country (Belfast Grand Opera House) to the other (Cork Everyman Palace Theatre) by way of Dublin (3Arena) - from Richard Strauss’ Salome to Charles Gounod’s Faust, via Ennio Morricone’s Life in Music with pit stops at screenings of the Metropolitan Opera’s Merry Widow and Tales of Hoffmann: the year started emphatically well in terms of some serious music live in Ireland and live in HD.

Salome

I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain (Wilde).

Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Salome (February 08) struck me initially as a cynical, disillusioned attempt to discredit Oscar Wilde’s play, on which the opera is based almost verbatim.

In previous articles here I have comprehensively discussed Al Pacino’s recent film of that play, and his documentary Wilde Salomé (September 21), and there is also an extensive review of Wexford Opera’s production of Mariotte’s ‘opera rara’ Salomé (October 28).

So I am not revisiting those pieces, but one of my key comments at the time has now come home to roost, namely how significant it is that Wilde was prouder of Salomé than any other of his plays:

The recurring phrases that bind it together are like a piece of music with recurring motifs

he wrote a few weeks after his release from prison in 1897; and that pride was finely reflected in Strauss’ opera, which opened five years after Wilde’s death.

Little of the Wilde pride turned up in NI Opera’s recent production, with its clapboard, trailer-park set, and trashy characterisations to match.

What saved this staging from a death worse than fate was Giselle Allen’s intuitive grasp of what this opera is about, and her mad scene with John’s severed head– as musically and dramatically nuanced as any  I have previously seen– should guarantee Allen’s interpretation legendary status in the annals of opera-in-performance in her native Belfast.

The Ulster Orchestra (augmented to 60 players) did catch most of the decadence and the lyricism of Strauss’ supercharged score but some of the voices were overwhelmed by that; Strauss like Wagner before him often got the singer-orchestra balance quite wrong.

Since the start of the 19th century, the number of musicians in the pit had nearly trebled and they were capable of making three times as much noise.

The human voice however was still the same size, and Salome, which is essentially an orchestral tone poem with additional parts for the voice, remains astonishingly inventive at all levels, with some really great, loud music which does compromise the singing.

Yet the orchestra at the performance under review seemed frequently underpowered; ironically that allowed us to hear the Baptist’s steady, noble utterances (as sung by Robert Hayward) which anchored this production in some dramatically credible terrain, before Allen got fully into her stride and took this opera off to where it belongs.

Were we then purged by pity and horror, which was Wilde and Strauss’ cathartic intention?

Not quite, because of the irritating distraction of a shabby production which could not for one moment be taken seriously.

Seek out a recording Birgit Nilsson’s live concert performance of Salome’s final scene, and then reward yourself by listening to Kirsten Flagstad’s reading of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and order and faith will be restored.

I remember being taken, from boarding school, as a treat, to readings of Louis MacNeice’s poetry, which we were studying for A-levels at the time, and each of us had to commit one of his poems to memory for the event.

I’ve never forgotten the poem I chose (probably because it is quite short), and it crossed my mind a couple of times sitting at that recent performance of Salome.

The poem was titled ‘Night Club’ and I can still recite it after so many years, even if I couldn’t understand it then:

After the leg shows and the brandies

And all the pick-me-ups for tired men,  

There is a feeling something more is required,

So the lights go down and eyes look out across the room,

And Salome comes in bearing the head of God knows whom.

www.niopera.com

Faust

The opening sequence of the Channel 4 series A Seat among the Stars – The Cinema and Ireland, which I devised and helped to produce over 30 years ago, was shot in Cork and featured the Everyman Palace Theatre and Dan Lowery’s tavern next door, because entrepreneur Lowery had brought the earliest public screenings of a new spectacle – the cinématographe – to that theatre in Cork on Easter Monday 1897 (and from there to a similar Victorian ‘palace of varieties’, the Olympia in Dublin).

So it was a double pleasure to return to the Everyman (February 24), this time to attend the superb Cork Operatic Society/John O’Brien production of Faust, Gounod’s most popular and sentimental opéra lyrique.

The anticipatory buzz in the theatre was infectious; the 42-piece orchestra was all over the place (brass in the two stage-side boxes, woodwind and percussion set high above Faust’s cleverly designed, multi-purpose study); then his clever transmogrification from a stooped and depressed old alchemist into a tuxedoed young rake; the Soldiers’ Chorus, with the Barrack Street Band, arranged across the back of the parterre; costumes (conductor and orchestra in matching gilets), chorus and choreography all of a very high standard - this was a production with imagination to burn.

Yes, the enunciation of the French language was sometimes lazy; and the ‘Veau d’Or’ and the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ scenes served to remind us of the longueurs in Gounod’s writing; but the celebrated tenor, bass-baritone and soprano set-pieces were stylishly and effectively given.

South Korean Jung Soo Jun, a dependable but uninspiring Faust, risked being overrun by the stentorian Méphisto (Julian Tovey), the devil with the best tunes who smirked and strutted among mere mortals like Don Giovanni auditioning on steroids.

The character of Marguerite may be less plausibly written, but Cara O’Sullivan addressed, then attacked and delivered her coloratura showpieces in exhilarating fashion, calculating through her music-making that it would be from her intense performance that we would take home the most emotional added value of the evening, and that was on a par with Giselle Allen’s Salome savoured earlier in the month at the other end of the country.

A note for the programme editor: white ink on black paper does not work, for most of us; and a short synopsis of the opera is generally welcomed, but space for it should not to be used up by over-long biographies of cast members and creative team.

www.johnobrien-music.com

Morricone

En passant, it was a little upsetting to see, from very close quarters, how frail and unwell Ennio Morricone appeared to be (since I first met him in Belfast in October 2008) on the night he brought the 86-piece Czech National Symphony Orchestra (and three Hungarian choirs comprising 75 voices) to play his Life in Music Concert in Dublin (February 07), postponed by eight weeks because he had been ill.

He’s 86 and, this February/March alone, he is giving 21 of these arena concerts across Europe, with a further five in the summer months; global popularity clearly comes with a heavy toll attached.

I’ve been an unquestioning fan since 1968 and have always appreciated the space given to Morricone’s music by most of the film directors with whom he has worked for over 50 years: it is that which defines his legacy and his insistence that all sound can belong to the realm of music, which of course is one definition of the sonic arts, at which he excels.

If Beethoven was alive today wouldn’t this be his music – simple themes in complex arrangements, outside-the-box instrumentation, concrete sounds, symphonic loading, and the voice as an instrument of the orchestra?

That latter feature of Morricone’s music was finely exemplified by Swedish soprano Susanna Rigacci’s wordless vocals in the main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, a clear highlight of the evening for the capacity audience.

www.enniomorricone.org

The Merry Widow

Precisely three weeks after Strauss’ Salome opened in Dresden, Lehár’s Merry Widow was centre stage in Vienna, 300 miles to the south, in December 1905.

Seen at the IMC Dún Laoghaire (January 17), this particular production from the Met was no more than an attractively dressed-up ball of smoke.

Yes, Renée Fleming was born to sing Hanna; her stagecraft is beyond criticism; and Thomas Allen huffed and puffed like a good-natured big bad wolf called Zeta, in Susan Stroman’s somewhat ponderous production with the shades of Figaro hovering throughout  which, given her impeccable Broadway background, may even for her  have been a step too far.

How frequently has this been the case in opera when stage and screen directors laden with pedigree are given free rein to meddle with classical dramma per musica? And don’t the exceptions prove the rule: Visconti, Miller, Zeffirelli, for starters?

This Widow has been the Met Live-in-HD’s most successful outing in nine seasons and IMC was using a second screen to accommodate demand for it.

And there was much to like: Jeremy Sam’s Covent Garden translation in clever rhyming couplets; a huge, happy orchestra (Andrew Davis) and three very stylish dance segments (Stroman again), but this is silver age Viennese operetta and there are rules: the dramatic power of through-composed opera is not required, just lots of local colour, which we got; and plots and characters which are sometimes less ludicrous than in many grand operas.

For didn’t Mozart really jump start this genre with his final singspiel speech-and-aria extravaganza called Magic Flute?

Cheryl Studer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are probably the best Hannas in CDland, recorded 40 years apart.

And Lyric Opera Productions will stage
The Merry Widow in the National Concert Hall Dublin on May 16, 17 and 19:
www.nch.ie

 

 

Tales of Hoffman

With this one we are still in operetta territory, despite Offenbach scholars’ claims that this is his first and only true opera, finished after he died in 1880; let’s agree it’s serious operetta, conceived to be sung throughout?

Leopards can’t change their spots; they have a kind of mild locked-in syndrome.

It’s the same with opera composers; Mozart was the only one who could slip in and out of the condition in the blink of an eye; Rossini the self-plagiarist nearly got there, but steady-on Donizetti was more predictable.

Offenbach was responsible for initiating real operetta and making it respectable; and for over 20 years in Paris he reigned supreme, untouchable; G & S and the 20th century Hollywood and Broadway/West End musicals are his god-children.

Orphée aux enfers was his calling card, Hoffmann the last gasp of a sophisticated musician and a cynical mind.

The Met Live-in-HD production (IMC, January 31) exuded the expected house qualities (except proper French) with some memorable performances: Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) almost stole the show both as Job Hoffmann’s comforting muse and as our eyes and ears – a one-man Greek chorus; three contrasting sopranos (Erin Morley, Christine Rice and Hibla Gerzmava) coloured in  Hoffmann’s tales; Thomas Hampson took on all four of the sinister, implacable nemeses, but with few contrasts and less colour in his interpretations; Vittorio Grigolo was surprisingly flat, at best, in the title role, while some surrealist design factors elevated this production  above the mundane (as for example  in the final transition from the Barcarolle back to the tavern in Nürnberg).

But for all the panache of what was on offer, it was nowhere near as imaginative as a life-long favourite of mine: Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 British film, with Rounseville and Ayars, conducted by Thomas Beecham.

There remain two more Met Operas this spring: Rossini’s Donna del Lago, with the incomparable Joyce DiDonato (March 14) and Argentinian Marcelo Álvarez as Turridu and Canio in the Cavalleria/Pagliacci double bill (April 25).

Then the 1oth Live-in-HD season of ten operas starts off on October 03 with Anna Netrebko’s Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore.

Global details at www.metopera.org

Irish details at www.classicalartsireland.com

Postscript

There were a few events which I attended in 2014 but which unfortunately I was unable to review. They included:

 

Brecht/Weill’s 1930 opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Rough Magic/Opera Theatre Company, Olympia Theatre Dublin, June 13)

 

Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar named Desire

(Young Vic Live, Movies@Dundrum, September 16)

 

The 59thCork Film Festival (November 07-09)

 

Derby Browne’s Winter Café

(Snowflake Martini Ensemble, National Concert Hall Dublin, November 28)

 

 

©georgefleetonmmxv



Puccini: the end of the line?

by

George Fleeton

This is the text of the pre-performance Talk given at the National Concert Hall Dublin on the occasion of Lyric Opera Productions’ Puccini Concert on 21 February 2015.

This introduction to Puccini’s operas was illustrated with very rare film of Renata Tebaldi singing Mimì, with Jussi Björling as Rodolfo, in a live NBC transmission from New York in January 1956, featuring the final scene from La Bohème, act 1: Che gelida manina, Mi chiamano Mimì and O soave fanciulla.

The introduction to the Concert was not an architectural or audio-visual tour of Puccini’s operas, but rather a robust,critical counter-reading of his work to prepare the ground for a fresh encounter with music from the soundtrack of many of our lives.

*

At the time of the Risorgimento in Italy, opera was in its hay-day, Verdi reigned supreme and, wherever tragic narratives stalked the stage, opera was also a blood sport - of sorts.

Opera in the 19th century was the foremost entertainment for Italians, of all classes and none – the second most popular indoor sport - and all other types of theatre (and indeed literature and music) had to struggle to find a comparable audience.

Other countries may have had opera composers, but Italy had opera: that was the cultural thinking into which Puccini was born, late in 1858.

*

What, in a strange way, distinguishes him, from all who   went before him, was that, unlike Verdi or the bel canto composers, Puccini he did not progress steadily and confidently forward through his life as a composer, getting better and better with each opera, as they had done.

Puccini’s first two operas are frequently derided; they are a young man’s work, a young man with a lot to learn and he learned a lot from them.

He had a well-developed taste for melodrama, allied to an instinctive feel for what worked on the stage; he was an intuitive man of the theatre; he could, with ease, imagine then create memorable melodies and then go on to orchestrate and to integrate them into the fabric of his operas, in music which does manipulate our responses to the plot, the characters and the stories he chose to tell.

Whereas his first two operas (Le Villi and Edgar) were slight and immature, they determined the paths and the patterns of the succeeding ten operas, from Manon Lescaut to Turandot even if Puccini’s musical style developed very little in those thirty years, certainly less so than that of Mozart, Wagner and Verdi.

Yet as a composer of music for the stage, an educated man who went to the theatre and to the silent cinema, he has always been box office gold.

There was a kind of decadence in his operas that appealed greatly to the evolving tastes of audiences who were fascinated by verismo operas between the 1890s and the outbreak of WW1.

Sometimes the dramas unfolding on the Puccinian stage look shallow – even when taken with some sublime music - and gloom rather than light tends to predominate: we variously call that melancholy or nostalgia.

*

Does Puccini’s music then sound better than it is?

The best opera needs the oxygen of heightened passions underscored by combustible music in relatively credible dramas, the whole suffused with persistent poetic intensity.

And Puccini did not always get there.

The great informal trilogy of La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly are his best work, in a very uneven output, for the other nine operas each struggle with their respective musical identities.

So what happened?

Was it the final choice of material, always arrived at after much personal dithering, and bickering with collaborators?

Were exotic Nagasaki, California and Peking wise decisions as settings for new operas?

Was the long shadow cast over Italian opera by Verdi more intimidating than Puccini was prepared to admit?

Was he distracted by his success, and the truck loads of disposable income it brought in its wake?

And by the unprecedented temptations of the new 20th century? - hunting, shooting and fishing, and building his own lakeside villa; driving and crashing his sports cars; travelling widely, especially to America to supervise productions of his work; making life hell for his publishers and librettists.

His marriage was not happy; those who knew him said he was a bit selfish, had a cruel streak; melancholic certainly, perhaps clinically depressed, but even if  eight of his female operatic protagonists die a variety of tragic deaths, does that make him  misogynistic?

After Butterfly he never embraced his final six operas with anything near 100% conviction.

It was a huge purse that persuaded him to write his only operetta La Rondine, never highly thought of then or now.

His Trittico of three short operas does sail close to originality, but lacks the follow through that would have made that concept a landmark in the history of opera in Europe.

However Puccini did give Italian opera its final great burst of pride, and Italian opera, as it was then and as we know it today, died when Puccini died 90 years ago.

He came at the confluence of the bel canto tradition, the dominance of Verdian melodramas, and the new realism of verismo opera.

His opera music was precipitous in design, with well-defined onward movement in the great set pieces, and naïve passions combined with melodic richness and some remarkable musical personalities.

There are also theatrical conceits and coups worthy of Shakespeare (Mimi’s last breath, Tosca’s leap, Butterfly’s child, Michele’s cloak).

And we don’t easily forget his gallery of helpless heroines, those dozen little women in love the impossible dreams of whose romances drive the operas forward.

Puccini’s operas offer ecstasy in love and pathos in death – sometimes referred to as liebestod – not in the more profound sense of Wagner or indeed Verdi, but in the simplicity and brevity of these things merely happening on stage, as in life: emotions perfectly painted and sculpted in music: that is the enduring Puccini legacy which we shared and celebrated with our audience on the night.

*

The next two Lyric Opera Productions will be fully staged in the National Concert Hall Dublin: on May 16, 17 and 19, Franz Lehár’s breakthrough operetta, from 1905, The Merry Widow; and in October, three performances of Puccini’s fourth opera, from 1896, La Bohème; and they will be followed by further Concerts featuring music from the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Wagner.

www.lyricoperaproductions.com

©georgefleetonmmxv

Women in Love

Le piccole donne innamorate di Puccini

by

George Fleeton

This article first appeared in the Programme for Lyric Opera Productions’ Puccini Concert at the National Concert Hall Dublin on 21 February 2015.

Anna, Fidelia: establishing the dna

Our journey with Puccini starts on a spring day of celebration in a village near the Black Forest: Anna has just been engaged to Roberto but he must leave that evening for Mainz, where he will later succumb to the ‘lures of an adventuress’.

Le Villi was Giacomo Puccini’s first opera (1884), and he was 26.

We are in Giselle territory here, where the ghosts of jilted girls – Anna’s fate – dance at night and should a faithless lover – in this case Roberto – encounter them he must join in the dance until he falls exhausted and dies.

This opera and Puccini’s second are not widely performed today; Edgar however was directed by Belfast-born Vivien Hewitt to open the new opera house for the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago in Tuscany seven years ago, much to the approval of Puccini’s grand-daughter Simonetta, as it was a Festival first.

It is set in early 14th century Flanders; Edgar is undecided between his platonic love for Fidelia and his passion for Tigrana, and it will all end badly because vengeful Tigrana, abandoned by a remorseful Edgar, stabs Fidelia and we find ourselves at the very beginning of post-Romantic verismo opera.

Each of Puccini’s two earliest women in love, in a real sense therefore, establish a particular thrust in his choices of material that result, for us, in some of the best known operatic melodramas in the entire history of the art form, going right back to the start, and in particular to Monteverdi’s only extant operas Orfeo, Ulisse and Poppea which were written in the first half of the 17th century.

Le Villi and Edgar are self-evidently the work of an inexperienced composer; they are sometimes dismissed as student work, but having heard them both, in excellent productions, they contain the dna of almost everything we discern in his remaining ten operas, which were written slowly, painstakingly and diffidently  between  1893 and 1924.

*

Manon, Mimì , Magda, Giorgetta : the Paris operas

So our encounters with Puccini’s piccole donne innamorate really begin, for most of us, with Manon before her tragic odyssey from Amiens to Paris and Le Havre, and on in to exile in Louisiana, where she ends up alone, lost and abandoned.

Paris, a city which Puccini (like Mozart and Verdi before him) grew to like, is fore-grounded in three further operas; indeed it is most celebrated in La Bohème, especially in the splendid Café Momus scenes of Act 2, where Mimì is at her happiest with Rodolfo and his friends.

Magda , an older woman - in La Rondine, an opera with the flavours of Fledermaus, a Traviata without the tragic outcome - will fly like a swallow to the Mediterranean in search of uncomplicated romantic love with a younger man Ruggero, but her guilt about her past will oblige her to leave him and return to her self-satisfied banker-protector in Paris.

And Giorgetta (in Il Tabarro) is, like Magda, a survivor but, after her young lover Luigi’s murder, her life on the Seine as a bargeman’s wife will be unbearable.

Giorgetta is the only married woman in Puccini’s twelve operas; the marriage between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San is a sham, although she will refuse to accept that.

*

Tosca , Cio-Cio-San, Minnie : grand opera stuff

Among the more tragic of all Puccini’s unfortunate heroines are Tosca and Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), the former overwhelmed by a fast developing set of circumstances over which she has no control and as a result of which she will choose to die without fully comprehending why.

Like Magda and Giorgetta, Tosca and Minnie are more mature women in love, unlike the younger and less experienced Anna, Fidelia, Manon and Mimì.

Cio-Cio-San ,naïve, vulnerable, spurned but steadfast, and youngest of them all, belongs to a culture (Nagasaki in the early 20th century) which Puccini really didn’t get to grips with in any dramatically convincing way – a slip for someone who had such an intuitive grasp of how the theatre works.

A further equally unhappy judgement call is also evident in the even more exotic La Fanciulla del West, set during the 1849 Gold Rush in California.

Minnie runs her Polka Saloon in the Cloudy Mountains, dispensing alcoholic and spiritual refreshments to the miners, until the arrival of Dick Johnson, robber and outlaw, an old flame, for whose life she will cheat in a game of poker with Sheriff Rance and, like Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane, will ride in and rescue Johnson from a death worse than fate (honestly, I am not making this up) for Puccini’s least credible dénouement.

*

Lauretta , Turandot, Angelica : end games

Like Minnie and Turandot, Lauretta  (Gianni Schicchi) will also live to tell her tale of love, in her case with Rinuccio, thanks to the machinations of her Machiavellian father.

And the final heroine on our journey, the frigid Princess Turandot (Puccini loose and lost in legendary Peking), is defrosted by a warming kiss from Calàf and we can all go safely back to sleep.

But it is Angelica and Liù who are probably the most heart-rending of these young women who fall fatally in love.

Manon had originally set out to enter a convent; Angelica is sent to one, having brought shame and disgrace on her noble family, with her illegitimate bambino, whom she cannot forget and whom she does not know had died two years previously.

Cio-Cio-San and Giorgetta had also lost their infant sons, in very contrasting ways.

In addition to one murder (Fidelia), suicide is a pronounced feature of Puccini’s operatic heroines: Liù stabs herself rather than face torture and reveal to Turandot the Prince’s name; Angelica will take poison, distilled from the herbs she tends in the covent garden; Cio-Cio-San will commit hara-kiri, dying with honour when she can no longer live honourably; and Tosca will leap to her death from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, she too sola, perduta, abbandonata.

Anna dies of a broken heart, Manon of exhaustion and thirst and Mimì of consumption.

Only five survive when the curtain falls: Minnie, Magda, Giorgetta, Lauretta and Turandot – and what stories they could tell.

*

The Luccan trovatore

With literate and well-schooled playwright/poets such as Fontana, Illica, Giacosa, Adami and Forzano supplying plot and verse, it may come as a surprise that tragedy almost exclusively pervades the operas of the maestro of Lucca.

There is so little comedy in Puccini’s oeuvre - just some light relief from the heavy drama: several scenes in Bohème; Cio-Cio-San’s toying with Goro and Yamadori; Minnie at her bible class; Magda in disguise, on the tear in town; or the irritating Ping, Pang and Pong in Turandot (although mind you Wagner and Verdi didn’t have pronounced senses of humour either).

In Puccini then, humour plays a relieving rather than a defining role, and that also makes him very different from Rossini and Donizetti.

As we can see, it’s a struggle to trace a comedic trait in Puccini’s melancholic and nostalgic outlook on art and love, and on life in general; only Schicchi would fit that bill and it is an opera as inspired as the best of commedia dell’arte.

What makes his entire body of work special – six major works, six minor (embracing the three one-act operas) - is the intensity of the storytelling, the lyricism of the music, the unforgettable melodies and the sharpness of delineation of character, all infused with Puccini’s many moods and madnesses (his chain-smoking, and crashing his cars), infidelities, energy-sapping travels abroad to supervise revivals of his work, arguments with librettists and publishers, an unsupportive spouse, and we won’t mention the Manfredi affair …

*

L’ultima scena

On 4th November 1924, with a sore throat and an obstinate cough, ailments which had dogged him most of his adult life, Puccini, now diagnosed with advanced throat cancer, and with the two final scenes of Turandot in his briefcase (drafted but not fully scored), set off by train for L’Institut de la Couronne in Brussels to see the leading European X-ray specialist Docteur Ledoux, spitting dark blood all the way through Switzerland and France.

The applications of radium did destroy the tumours, but his heart gave up, under the immense strain of the treatment, at 4.00am on 29th November; he was 66.

*

In our own Anglo-American literary and musical output there is nothing quite like the canon of Puccini’s little women in love.

There is not much tragedy to be found, for instance, in the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March in Alcott’s imaginative Little Women (themselves celebrated in an opera by Mark Adamo in 1998).

Lawrence’s controversial sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, women in love, are less fragile than Puccini’s creations; they are women with strong sexual identities who cope much better in a world peopled by fickle men.

And Puccini’s male creations are a fickle lot - Roberto, Edgar, Des Grieux, Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Pinkerton, Johnson, Ruggero, Luigi, Rinuccio, Calàf - and isn’t this sometimes reflected, as it is in Mozart’s major operas, by the relatively inferior music he wrote for them?

Indeed the only ‘credible’ men in Puccini’s pack of unprincipled and dishonourable cads – and it is a push to find them – are the ‘baritones’ Marcello, Scarpia, Sharpless, Rance, Michele and Schicchi, at least two of whom you would not like to meet on a dark night in Rome or in Paris.

Puccini, dramatist and composer, is not Dante or Shakespeare nor is he Wagner or Verdi, but the deep niche he carved for himself at the emotional end of our imaginations cannot be denied, nor has time eroded the connective tissue.

Is it any wonder then that when we wander out of a Puccini opera, intoxicated by the marijuana of his music, we remember clearly, next day when we sober up, the plights, the tears and the fears, and the premature, often self-inflicted deaths of a gallery of brave young women cheated and forsaken in their search for a simple undemanding love that might just abide?

©georgefleetonmmxv


            


Carmen,   Il Barbiere di Siviglia;    

Fidelio but not all ends well in Seville

by

George Fleeton

SINCE December 30th eight years ago, when the Metropolitan Opera (New York) embarked on its MET: Live-in-HD initiative via satellite to cinemas worldwide, about 70 countries have joined the club and, in Ireland north and south, it is all managed for us by Classical Arts Ireland (CAI)¹.

By the end of the current, ninth season (April 25) about 90 Met operas will have been transmitted in this manner, of which almost half have been reviewed here.

But since the end of 2006, a broader, alternative market place has taken root (to include theatre, ballet, other opera,  concerts and gigs of all descriptions) for similar, high culture live in HD transmissions, and they are stage-managed in Ireland by other organisations than CAI, for example Movies @ Dundrum & Swords².

*

TWO of five recent Metropolitan operas served up in live HD were Carmen (November 01) and The Barber of Seville (November 22), both seen at IMC Dún Laoghaire³.

These productions are examples of what I feared would eventually happen to this style of delivery: squeaky-clean, anaesthetised confections, neither fish nor fowl, more closely allied to what is called cinema’s live alternative content – i.e. non-film related: think football on Sky - where the acting (or diving), in huge close-up, simply fails to convince.

Isn’t it, because the majority of even the best opera singers are neither natural nor trained actors, that they are best encountered, live and alive, from the other side of the orchestra, in our comfort zones in the parterre or in the circle, rather than in massive close-up, vocal chords and other bits full in our faces, on some bland, two-dimensional cinema screen?

What we have now is a new generation of operatic stars-in-their eyes singers (take a look at the glamour embedded in some of their websites, especially the men) several of whom are frankly exposed as more shadow than substance in the unblinking eyes of the HD cameras.

Carmen

THIS, and the next two productions under review here, is the case for the prosecution.

A Georgian mezzo, a Latvian tenor, a Romanian soprano, a Russian bass, a British director and a Spanish conductor, in a combination let it be said of some clear-cut and diverse skills, failed in their team effort to kick life into this stubborn opera set, in this production, during the Spanish Civil War in Seville.

Fortunately the music survived the mugging intact; Micaëla’s Act 1 duet with Don José and her sublime solo from Act 3 were particular highlights.

A handsome, fussy but under-utilised set, on a massive revolve, with some authentic baile flamenco and more physicality than usual together could not fan the sparks (which flew everywhere) into a dramatically convincing inferno where desperate, self-destructive infatuation   (Don José) murders arrogant, taunting indifference (Carmen) – ‘she was born free and free she will die’, she trills in his face, but the theatrical  conceit to which all this builds as endgame had (like José himself earlier) already gone awol.  

The other big Bizet numbers too seemed isolated from the narrative thrust of the brilliant libretto and, instead of a story pounding along with the pulse of cannons at war, we got insipid melodrama, uneven colours, and too little 0f the core of steel which makes Carmen one of all opera’s ineffable master works, and it is impossible to doze off.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

WAS this another bullet-proof opera expertly handled, also set in Seville? Let’s see.

My last Barbiere in an opera house was in the Teatro Malibran in Venice in 2011, and I slept through most of it.

This Met production was a lot livelier, well cast, with costume changes and disguises go leor, imaginative staging and the shine on Rossini’s music was gloss high.

What we have here, in 1816 as it were, are the younger versions of six characters who had turned up, older and wiser, in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro thirty years earlier: Figaro, Rosina, Almaviva, Bartolo, Basilio and Marcellina/Berta.

Barbiere was Rossini’s sixteenth opera (he wrote thirty-nine) and he was already plagiarising himself, right, left and centre; the ouverture he had already used twice before; and while Righetti may have created the role, it was  Pasta then  Malibran who made it their own and helped ensure this opera’s undeniable status as one of the greatest.

The first act is far too long (about 90 minutes) and yet is the better, as act two is musically overshadowed by what went before, and we are left wondering again if this opera is superior to all other Rossinis?

What has to be done in this opera did not overtax director, conductor or the four in-form principals, yet only Isabel Leonard (Rosina) seemed totally at ease in what was a traditional production; we have seen her recently excelling as Cherubino and Dorabella where, unlike her companions in all these productions who are constantly glancing down at the conductor for their cues (this is what exposure to the HD cameras reveals), Leonard gets on with it, orchestra in tow.

Fidelio

HOW does Teatro alla Scala⁴ manage to get it so spectacularly wrong two years in a row, on the fixed opening night of the new season (December 07; Movies Dundrum) .  

The violent street protests outside that evening had nothing to do with the choice of material, nor with Daniel Barenboim’s pro-Palestinian political views;  indeed this was Barenboim’s swan song as music director at La Scala.

Last year Traviata (reviewed here) was a mess, loudly and unambiguously booed; the tenor announced he would never sing in Italy again and the production was so uneven in every respect that my list of misgivings about it took up more space than the discernible positives.

Fast forward one year, with a different director and conductor, and Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio (in Treitschke’s revised libretto of 1814) suffers unspeakable indignities.

Historically Fidelio fits uncomfortably into the gap between Mozart and the tried and tested Baroque operas of the late 18th century and the emergence of Rossini and romanticised bel canto at the beginning of the 19th.

We are once more in Seville, and again all is not well.

Leonore/Fidelio (Anja Kampe) is working undercover in Don Pizarro’s prison in order to engineer the release of her political prisoner husband Florestan; issues such as marital love, freedom, feminism and prison reform can’t be dealt with in any depth in opera, although Beethoven tries his best, and the revolutionary political shock effects of this opera have of course been neutralised by events over the last two hundred years.

British director Deborah Warner’s production is stale, cheapskate kitchen sink soap-opera, in ugly sets and unflattering costumes (Kampe’s boiler suit, woolly hat and mop and bucket are a case in point), but this tendency to regieoper which visually contradicts the composer’s intentions is more than  counterbalanced by some impeccable singing, particularly from  Wagnerian specialist Kampe, and Mojca Erdmann as  Marzelline.

Warner can’t be serious in her defence of the look of this production by saying that the Ukraine and ISIS and the ‘disappeared’ are in the dna of the opera!  

This was uninspired, rudimentary  staging, devoid of concept and routinely conducted (I’ve always maintained that opera is not Barenboim’s forte) but Kampe’s voice has colour and scale and character and, as Damrau tried to do with Violetta a year ago, she almost single-handedly saved this production of a great opera  from death by mediocrity.

*

So who will advance the case, in artistic terms, for the defence of opera as live alternative content in cinemas?

Commercially speaking live-in-HD is a massive money-spinner, especially for the Metropolitan Opera, London’s National Theatre and their  distributors BY Experience, run by Julie and Robert Borchard-Young (Robert is from Dublin)5.

But live in HD is singlehandedly putting the exhibition of independent and specialised film out the door.

It is transforming the screenscape of the multiplex in the mall, and in cinemas in towns as widely spaced as Letterkenny, Carrick-on-Shannon and Tralee.

The audiences are mostly d’un certain âge and they bring their own picnics for consumption at the intervals during longer live events such as Wagner, so refreshment concession sales are hit but  management daren’t blink as pre-booking on-line has become the norm and the money is already in the bank.

And key Saturday evening slots are now  lost to the distributors of mainstream pap, no bad thing because that stuff gives real cinema a bad name.

The next MET: Live in HD is The Merry Widow, 6pm Irishtime on January 17ª.

¹ www.classicalartsireland.com

² www.movies-at.ie

³ www.imccinemas.ie

www.teatroallascala.org

www.byexperience.net

ª www.metopera.org

(c)georgefleetonmmxv   



63rd Wexford Festival Opera 2014

Evening Operas

by

George Fleeton

According to AA Gill¹ we are now as far from the outbreak of the First World War as the soldiers who fought there were from Waterloo … but we are past the point of being able to ask anyone who was there what it meant.

Fortunately I got to talk to some First World War veterans, in 1978 on  the 60th anniversary of the Armistice; the youngest was 78 and he seemed to be the most damaged in the group and, while the men roamed widely and freely through their memories, hands-across-the-divide events such as the ‘silent night’ of December 1914, to the best of my recollection, was never mentioned. 

And that  in turn now reminds me of something else: history (part-time teacher Stephen Dedalus says to Deasy his headmaster, early on in Joyce’s Ulysses) is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.  


Silent Night

Not a little of that sentiment and the entangled cauchemar of war were captured in newcomer Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night (October 27).

Of all the blown-in English language operas that  have been grandstanded in Wexford in recent years (The Mines of Sulphur, The Ghosts of Versailles, The Golden Ticket, A Village Romeo and Juliet) Silent Night was by far the best realised.

Operas deriving from film screenplays are not too common, and Silent Night worked surprisingly well as a derivative thanks to some breath-taking stagecraft and inspired design.

Normally in cinema when the screen is split, while events happening in parallel time or space are cross-cut, the divisions are vertical, running from ceiling to floor.

In Erhard Rom’s set design for Silent Night the parallels and overlaps and simultaneities of narrative are literally built one on top of the other, in horizontal perspectives like grave niches in catacombs: the Scottish are on level two, the French on level one and the Germans on ground zero.

One can only imagine the headaches this must have presented for stage management and lighting and for the singers who did not always have clear sight lines to other parties on stage.

This opera is beyond War Horse for grown-ups: it bears witness, both in its libretto and in its music, across a spectrum of five languages, to mass murder in pock-marked landscapes that implicated all of us in ineffable calamities which, even at the end of 2014, have still not left the global stage, because the explosive connective tissues of war continue to plague our lives and our world.

As a film Joyeux Noël, on whose screenplay this opera is based, is bland and saccharine when compared with the more demanding cinema essays of Rex Ingram (Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1921), Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930), James Whale (Journey’s End, 1930), Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion, 1937), Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, 1957) or Joseph Losey (King and Country, 1964).

Such greater films may well have fuelled our current but helpless fascination with the distant, inscrutable trenches of meaningless war mongering; Silent Night is timely in that, embedded in another art form, it obliges us to continue remembering: we cannot look away from the loved and the lost who are only ‘known unto God’ just as we cannot understand the singular lack of a major mutiny in the British, French or German lines despite the calamitous casualties, nor can we forget  the nightmare of history from which we are still trying to awake.

All cultures, and their art forms, tend to obscure what they cannot readily cope with: that is the mercurial enigma code of all art as it struggles to exteriorise what is essentially internal to our emotions, our imagination, our subconscious and our intellects.

This was an opera of tableaux and camaraderie, with multiple and impeccable scene changes - Cinerama on its side - bagpipes and on-stage band,  the Latin mass and shadows and shades of Korngold and Barber in music that fades to zero…..

I understand Kevin Puts’ next opera is The Manchurian Candidate – from the 1959 novel dealing with the Korean War, Chinese communism, brainwashing and American homeland politics.

It will have its world premiere in Minnesota in March 2015; if it is mounted and sung as well as Silent Night was in Wexford this year, it will be vociferously welcomed here at some future date, and should add much needed collateral energy to a Wexford Festival formula which, I find after seven consecutive years, has now reached its endgame.

¹ Sunday Times, November 09.

*

Tragic opera is of course a blood sport, a highly ritualised corrida, red in tooth and claw; we saw that in Silent Night; we came across it earlier in Il Tabarro, and we encounter it now in Salomé.

Salomé

If Silent Night was this year’s thinking piece at Wexford, Mariotte’s obscure Salomé (October 28) was the singers’ opera.

Gustave Flaubert spent the second half of his life as a writer trying to achieve total objectivity and a harmonious, realist prose style in his works of fiction.

This driven ambition (‘One week – two pages!’) took enormous personal toil to achieve and, in his lifetime, it brought him very little recognition.

Today Flaubert’s legacy to European literature was to have lifted prose to the level of poetry.

Like Mozart he had it all mapped out in his head and he could hear the fall of the phrases for pages to come before he actually wrote them down.

For instance when Emma Rouault-Bovary goes to the opera in Rouen (Lucia di Lammermoor is playing), her encounter with Lucia’s story only reinforces her own romantic malaise, her need to live in dreams and her longing for colour in her oppressively provincial life:

She recognised the ecstasy and the agony of which she had nearly died. Lucia’s voice seemed simply the echo of her own conscience, and all this theatrical conceit was a fragment of her own life … But, of course, such happiness is a lie, designed to be the despair of all desire.²

Like Oscar Wilde four decades later, a legal case was brought against Flaubert for outrage to public morals and religion in Madame Bovary, but – unlike Wilde – he was acquitted of all charges.  

Only Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) -  his Trittico -  published three years before his death, was an unqualified success, and the third of these tales – Hérodias -  is a masterly crafted reconstruction of the events leading up to the martyrdom of St John the Baptist.

As an example of realist literature it is quite separate from Wilde’s play Salomé and those writers who, over the years, have insisted on comparing and contrasting the two pieces have wasted their time and ours, in spite of Wilde’s claim that he had read the Trois Contes and that Flaubert was his master.

In Flaubert’s take on the Salomé story, Hérodias schemes to have her second husband Hérode fall in love with his step-daughter as part of her plan to kill John the Baptist and so the mother-figure is more central to the tale than her namesake in Wilde’s version.³

Flaubert had been inspired by a depiction of Salomé’s dance on a 13th century bas relief or frieze at Rouen Cathedral: it fills the tympanum above the Saint-Jean door on the left of the western façade (but as a detail it is too small to discern in Monet’s celebrated series of paintings of the Cathedral).

Wilde on the other hand was inspired by the notion that the world we see about us is only a theatrical backdrop behind which the real world stands: ‘I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain’ he said in Paris in the autumn of 1891.  

He was prouder of Salomé than any other of his plays: the recurring phrases, he said, bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs.

It was of course criticised: ‘an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred’ (The Times, February 1893).

But Richard Strauss’ operatic version - Dresden 1905, by which time Wilde was dead – proved to be an immediate success and guaranteed Wilde’s place in opera history.

Both this opera and Mariotte’s do faithful justice to a great if unusual piece of theatre.

The Wexford production was finely paced, intriguing to the eye, with an Hérodias and a Salomé each convincingly and progressively unhinged (even if the moon’s celestial highness - with not a trace upon her face of diffidence or shyness - was not fully exploited); but the seven deadly sins, the seven silent kings and the seven discarded veils were all in evidence, while the partial collapse of the seven golden portals in the final scene was a most effective deus ex machina.

Carrying the burden of this multi-layered opera on secure shoulders Israeli mezzo Na’ama Goldman gave a fabled account of her talents and some of the most interesting music heard in Wexford for a long time was carefully gathered up and selflessly shared with us by conductor David Angus.

(But what really grated on the ear was American bass Scott Wilde’s insistent pronunciation of ‘Salomé’ to rhyme with ‘sodomy’ in his quite ineffectual portrayal of Hérode – an achievement only surpassed by U2’s utterly pathetic rant Salome from over twenty years ago).

In our real world (which Wilde sometimes chose to ignore) decapitation, which used to be part of our western traditions in war and peace, is the new terrorism.

In the middle ages the English regularly parboiled the heads of convicted criminals, and there are considerable numbers of Christian saints’ heads gracing cathedrals across Europe.

In our musical culture the heads of Haydn, Mozart Beethoven and Schubert were harvested posthumously not to mention that of Charlotte Corday and lots of guillotine fodder during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution of 1789.

Nothing has changed yet all is changed utterly.

As we are unlikely ever to see Mariotte’s opera again, we must adjust our focus to the Grand Opera House Belfast (February 6th and 8th) where Strauss’ Salome is being sung (in English) by Giselle Allen: www.niopera.com


My thoughts on Wexford 2014’s ShortWorks and Lunchtime Recitals were published here in November.


² My translation.

³ See my reviews, published here in September, of Al Pacino’s two films Salomé and Wilde Salomé.

©georgefleetonmmxiv


Nadene Fiorentini

Piano Recital

by

George Fleeton

The heavyweights are of course present: Haydn (Joseph), Brahms (Johannes) and Liszt (Franz) – all safe pairs of hands to inspire any début piano recital CD, this particular one launched on December 20.

And the footnote tracks are most interesting: a short piece, Gleann na Sídhe by Eibhlis Farrell, and Olivier Messiaen’s Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus: together these two pieces give much added value to a package timed at 73 minutes.

The Farrell is inspired by the fairy glen near her home in Rostrevor and was commissioned for the last Dublin International Piano Competition.

The contrast between the fairy world of the Mournes and Messiaen’s intense Catholic belief system, is stark.

I can remember Messiaen practising on the organ of La Trinité on Sunday afternoons in Paris in the late 60s, and then we would scuttle off across town to hear an organ concert in Notre Dame at 5pm given by Pierre Cochereau; in winter it was even warmer inside there, for impoverished students.

Messiaen’s meditation on the childhood of Christ for piano solo is in twenty movements and Nadene Fiorentini has chosen no.15, a beautiful lullaby, part of his faith music of many colours.

Fiorentini is the National Concert Hall Rising Star 2014 and when reviewing her first Recital there (March 20) I commented then on the Haydn B minor Sonata and Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces, both of which are reprised on this CD.

So the freshest heavyweight ingredient thereon is Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann, a small part of an extensive musical diary of impressions retained both from his travels around Switzerland and from reading a popular romantic novel of the time called Obermann (a thesis, very  derivative of Rousseau, on the complex relationships between man and nature).

The characteristics of Nadene’s musicianship are constants: playing which invites us to think about what we are listening to, and a refined and self-assured interpretation, sometimes evoking delicately spun silk, sometimes translucent sculpture, the kind that lets the light pass through it.

This CD is available by emailing

nadene2708@eircom.net

©georgefleetonmmxiv


         

Breakfast in Burgundy

by

George Fleeton

This book is a lot more than Petit Déjeuner en Bourgogne in English, because its fundamental appeal is a frank account of Raymond Blake and his wife Fionnuala’s life-changing decision, seven years ago, to buy a house in Burgundy.

What they got was a rude awakening to the tragicomedy of the work practices of local tradesmen and labourers and some raw personal experience of a red taped bureaucracy which is most certainly not one of the glories of France.

Their life in Santenay, Côte d’Or, the home of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, is recounted in well-paced writing, laced with cryptic humour and staccato paragraphing, all marinated in wondrous metaphors and similes – the sort of book that puts a smile on the face of a statue.

*

So let me hit the American publishers (Skyhorse) where it hurts.

At first glance Breakfast in Burgundy is a handsome looking publication.

Then you spot, in terms of front jacket design, a most uninspired block of four photographs strapped blandly across the bottom, which intrude pointlessly on a splendid sweeping view of the belly of France – a hill swaddled in vines.

And that squared-off blandness of design bleeds into an unimaginative arrangement of sixteen further photos, about one third the way into the book, all of which - you will discover when reading it - are loosely text-related.

Regarding that text - as printed, not as written - it is not justified, i.e. aligned equally to left and right margins, throughout its 250+ pages (the paragraph you are reading is an example of what I mean); irritating Americanisms also leak in (liter, meter, but what is bouef?); there is no Index, and no photo of the writers’ house at Santenay which is the focus of the narrative.

This book needs maps, and the title of one chapter, which   gets past the censor, is Parley Voo? (is there something wrong with Parlez-vous? that has escaped me for the last 58 years speaking French?); even though that very  chapter, it must be said, is one of the best written.

In fact it is all so entertainingly and refreshingly well-constructed that, for European readers, there should be a tidied-up, better-designed edition - ASAP, s’il vous plait!

*

Raymond Blake has been a rower, a teacher and a car boot salesman; now he is an established wine writer whose default setting in Ireland is a frown, while in France it’s a smile.

He may describe himself as a hungry Irishman, a self-styled glutton, but there are large dollops of the gourmet everywhere; he is a wine nut too: ‘Je bois français’ is another of his default settings and wine, he writes, is something old that changes and improves as the years pass: the fridge may often be bare but the cellar always brims.

The English vocabulary associated with swirling, sniffing and sipping wine is an education in itself, while M Blake’s three page description of preparing boeuf Bourguignon – he is a trencherman, not a chef - reads like an extract from a thriller by Chandler: ‘You meet people (Blake knows – he’s now one of them) who worry about the next meal while eating this one.’

And his description of the annual Saint Vincent Tournante ranks with the language of Flaubert depicting Emma Bovary trapped in provincial Normandy.

The Blake house in France is nearly finished and it will be that way for some time yet, so that story is probably for book 2 – Lunch & Dinner in Burgundy and whatever you’re drinking yourself.

www.blakeonwine.com

© georgefleeton mmxiv



CaraDiva        

by

George Fleeon


THE MIX may be eclectic but it is far from esoteric: opera is well represented (arias by Gounod, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti), and Balfe and Wallace are there too (but not Benedict – which would have taken us round the so-called Irish Ring).  

That’s not important: the selection of art songs is equally impeccable: Delibes, more Rossini and contemporary offerings by Novello, Sartori/Quarantotto and Lloyd-Webber, all capped by Moore’s evergreen Last Rose.

So where are we?

Well, twelve years ago Irish soprano Cara O’Sullivan cut her first recital CD (with RTÉ’s Concert Orchestra) to help raise funds for Marymount Hospice in her native Cork; the last, audited figure was four hundred thousand Euro - an incredible achievement.

This year O'Sullivan has re-released that album, as CaraDiva, and it is proof, no longer required, that her credentials, as a superb voice in Irish opera-in- performance, are unquestionable.

The voice is huge and warm with a life-enhancing bottom, middle and top, suffused with light and colour and an innate grasp of what she is about, which conveys itself to us with humour, poise and grace (indeed it recalls vividly the voice-grace of the über-versatile Grace Bumbry, one of my lifelong favourites).

*

In my review of O’Sullivan’s performance in St Carthage’s Cathedral Lismore (on June 01 last), I described it as a ‘textbook example of what a summer Sunday afternoon recital should be.’

Now my word is not the fifth gospel, it’s more apocryphal than that, so, if you are free on December 16, Cara O’Sullivan is singing A Classical Christmas, with Joanne Quigley, violin, and David Quigley, piano, at 8pm in the Arts Centre Newry and the CaraDiva CD will be on sale then too.

www.newrychambermusic.com

caradivacd@gmail.com

© georgefleeton mmxiv



63rd Wexford Festival Opera 2014

ShortWorks – still searching for the perfect mix

by

George Fleeton

The artistic rationale behind the Festival’s ShortWorks’ programme still escapes me.

Are they meant to be consumed as scaled-down formats, or pocket editions, or chamber operas or just undemanding, cheap and cheerful theatre? - it would seem we are free to choose.

They have never seemed integral to the mission statement of ‘promoting rare works which have never made it into the popular repertory or which have fallen out of favour over the years’.

It is easier to understand their commercial function as central to the daytime events’ package which does not, as claimed, really give the punters a true flavour of opera.

Happily the ShortWorks this year returned to Whites Hotel after a couple of years in the wilderness of the town’s Presentation Secondary School.

Double Bill

Let’s get the car crash out of the way first, namely a double bill, comprising Holst’s Wandering Scholar and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (October 29).

The former read like an extract, set to music,  from John B Keane - The Chastitute, say, or A High Meadow; the small cast worked very hard to make it all credible, and both Irish baritones, Jamie Rock and Gavan Ring, captured very well the Keystone Cops element of a very thin piece of theatre.

Trial by Jury was the first operetta in which I sang (in the 1950s) and the memory of it is still pleasant.

This is an English cousin, probably twice removed, of opera buffa, and the ensemble work in this production was first class - in the dusk with a light behind it, of course.

Il Tabarro

Nothing better than this one-act opera, by Puccini, serves to define what ShortWorks at Wexford should really be about.

There are hundreds of one-act operas out there which would fit this bill without any scaling down; notable exceptions would include Strauss’ Salome and Wagner’s Rheingold of course, but then it’s open season, as they say when hunting; and a duet or trio of instruments, instead of solo piano accompaniment, would re-brand Shortworks beyond recognition and the appeal of daytime events’ packages would have all that added value.

This Tabarro, in a spartan setting, worked quite well, and an errant fire alarm in Whites (during the October 30 performance) had no effect on the well-paced pièce noire that is Puccini’s most neglected mature work.

Of the three principals, British baritone Quentin Hayes (barge-owner Michele) exuded a weariness and confused suspicions, about his young wife’s affair with one of their employees, that were melodramatically riveting. 

As Giorgetta, Russian soprano Maria Koslova excelled in her music and in her acting; she still has remnants of her dreams of a settled life on dry land, in Belleville perhaps (Piaf’s part of Paris) ¹, far from the wretched social conditions of life on the Seine;  in his superb final film, L’Atalante (1934), writer-director Jean Vigo covers precisely this same ground, of spiritual disaffection with married life, with his barge-wife Juliette (played by Dita Parlo). Do seek this film out.

What Puccini achieved with Tabarro (more than with either Angelica or Schicchi) was the completeness, the same dramatic weight, in 52 minutes, of a full-length opera, encompassing Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action.

There is nothing like this in any one of his other eleven operas; by 1918 long gone was the musical marijuana of Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly; but am I still alone in believing that Tabarro is Puccini’s only unqualified masterpiece?

Giorgetta, one of the composer’s more credible piccole donne inamorate/little-women-in-love is finely delineated in her duets with Luigi (of which two) and with Michele, as she has no solo aria allotted to her; and Giorgetta’s need to escape from the barge, where her infant son had died, has echoes of Cio-Cio-San giving up her three year old boy, and it anticipates too Angelica’s equally cruel separation from her son.

None of this breadth of texture can be found in the Wexford production; the resources required for that are simply not in the Shortworks’ budgetary or artistic thinking – Nulla! Silenzio!

La Cenerentola

Each year since 2008 I have found that any ShortWork directed by Milan-based Roberto Recchia is meticulously prepared, assiduously staged, with audio and visual imagination to burn and conveys an understanding of how opera works which surpasses that of any other guest stage director for this part of the Festival.

In his recent productions, for example, Recchia has expressly explored the interstices between cinema and opera (last year with L’elisir d’amore, and earlier with The Magic Flute and La Bohème).

With La Cenerentola (October 28) all this imagination spills out from the stage and engages the audience with panache, humour and surprise, the whole abrim with references to cinema, commedia dell’arte and pasticcio.

It helps if the singers buy into this approach with conviction and of that there was no doubt.

Rossini invented Italian opera, especially comic opera, as we know it today, yet exactly half way through his life, (after he had written his mammoth Guglielmo Tell  for Paris in 1829), he abandoned the art form at which he excelled and to which he had brought buckets of discipline and structure.

In this pared down production of his Cinderella story, most of his elegant and elaborate writing for the voice is intact, with an abundance of coloratura.

And Angelina, on her journey from scullery maid to Ramiro’s princess (Kate Allen and Eamonn Mulhall in the best of form), with no disneyesque touches along the way, also makes that longer journey from Rossini’s imagination nearly two hundred years ago to director Recchia’s Opera Paradiso set: a movie theatre which, he contends, is ‘the only place, besides an opera house, where magic is still allowed and has never lost its power’.

If Rossini had been born 100 years later, in the 1890s, with those proven skills and talents for effective storytelling, might he have been one of the great pioneers of the golden age of early Italian cinema (1909-16), alongside Giovanni Pastrone perhaps?

¹ Belleville è il nostro suolo e il nostro mondo;

  noi non possiamo vivere sull’acqua!

© georgefleeton mmxiv


63rd Wexford Festival Opera 2014

Lunchtime Recitals - perfect pitch

by

George Fleeton

For the seventh consecutive year, memorable highlights of this Festival were to be savoured at the Lunchtime Recitals (of which eight) - widely appreciated opportunities to hear some of the principal voices in solo recitals.

Sinéad Mulhern (October 28)

Fresh from singing Anna Sørensen in Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night the previous evening in her Wexford début, Sinéad’s recital programme opened with four songs by Richard Strauss and included four more by Sergei Rachmaninov (with Andrea Grant, the Festival’s principal répétiteur, on piano); one of the Strauss songs Morgen! part of a wedding present for his wife, was also beautifully accompanied by violinist Deirdre Reddy.

Pleasant and relaxed, Paris-based Mulhern’s selection of songs had a melancholic thrust served well by a voice whose colours were sometimes dramatic, sometimes infectious - as in her last three choices Star of the County Down, Johnny I hardly knew Ye and, without accompaniment, Danny Boy.

Kate Allen (October 29)

Mezzo-soprano Kate Allen, with a small part in Silent Night plus the title role in La Cenerentola, sang a programme of what we used to call old chestnuts – in the sense of familiar and well-known (accompanied by Italian pianist Carmen Santoro): Orfeo’s aria Che faro senza Euridice? from Gluck’s first ‘reform’ opera – a melody that needs no sauce; then Dorabella’s agitated Smanie implacabili from Così – her army officer lover Ferrando has been called up on active service and she doesn’t like it one bit; and Rosina’s cavatina Una voce poco fa, about a ‘Lindoro’ whom she barely knows, in Rossini’s Barbiere; she says she’s gentle, respectful, obedient, sweet and loving - hardly the definition of a viper with a hundred traps to spring, if thwarted?

But Allen really shone with the three linked canonzette from Rossini’s Regata Veneziana, pieces which he wrote in Paris, many years after his final operas; one of my treasured recordings of these three songs is by Renata Tebaldi, in Toronto in 1965.

Soprano Jennifer Davis took centre stage with  Kate Allen, as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in their lovesick, entrance duet Ah, guarda, sorella from Così, and they were joined by baritone Ian Beadle for one of the simplest, most exquisite trios ever written – Soave sia il vento, a heartfelt wish for good weather - all of which added value to an excellent recital.

It now seems customary for Irish singers at lunchtime in Wexford to sign off with a local song or two and, true to form, Kate gave us My Lagan Love.

Na’ama Goldman (October 30)

Another Wexford débutante, mezzo-soprano Goldman, who is from Israel, had taken the very demanding lead role in the Festival’s opening main stage production of Salomé.

Not a bit shy in teaching us about her choices of recital music, she launched into Carmen’s Habanera, with its shades of tango, and then Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera, by way of a contrast.

She is preparing to sing Rosina at Israeli Opera so she tried out on us a perfect Una voce poco fa, but she might like to bite down on the Ma (Ma se mi toccano…) just as Callas did to such great effect.

Her songbook on the day (with Janet Haney on piano) had a comforting and structured French-Spanish bias: Delibes’ song Les Filles de Cadiz, Dalila’s Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix from Saint-Saëns’ Samson; two songs in Hebrew; then back to Bizet for the Séguedille and Carmen’s Les tringles des sistres, her Act 2 gypsy dance, performed just before the arrival of Escamillo.

Finally, and unexpectedly, we were sent off by our teacher with a perfect rendition of Piaf’s most personal song La vie en rose.

Na’ama Goldman sang with an abundance of energy and engagement and she set the bar high for these recitals, yet I am confident that the five performances which I missed were equally impressive and diverse.

Charles Lloyd, my favourite living jazz saxophonist, had this to say recently about the irresistible draw of music in a live performance (and I paraphrase): we can read about the warmth of the sun and imagine how it feels, but when we actually bask in its glory, we realise that no words can properly describe that feeling of heat and light which penetrates so deeply. To experience great music live is like that. We can listen to a recording or read a review, but when we are able to listen live, there is a palpable chemistry that is created between the audience, we listeners in the dark, and the music makers in the light, which is unique to that place and time, a one off.

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Arrivals & Departures

Brigid O’Neill

by

George Fleeton

There are just five songs on Brigid O’Neill’s début EP Arrivals & Departures (launched in Belfast on September 24), each one a gem of imaginative song writing.

A handsome production, these songs have been in her concert programmes going back two or three years, and on this CD the backing instruments stay at a respectful and restrained distance to allow a distinctive Northern Irish voice to be foregrounded, and to establish itself in just 17 minutes.

Difficult to genrify perhaps, this music engages immediately and you want to listen to it again from the start: of how many other local singer-song-writers can you say that?

www.brigidoneill.co.uk

(c) georgefleeton mmxiv

15th Kerry Film Festival

by

George Fleeton

We met an antlered stag and his biche on our way back from the 15th Kerry Film Festival, on the road between Ladies View and Moll’s Gap, which is the red deer’s habitat in Killarney National Park; it is rut season at this time of year.

The Kerry Film Festival now spreads itself around the Ring of Kerry and, this year, films were screened in Killarney, Killorglin, Cahersiveen, Waterville and Kenmare (Festival HQ is in Tralee) - that’s the counter-clockwise route, as advised to tourist coaches, because of the nature of the roads around the Iveragh Peninsula.

KFF foregrounds the short film (112 were screened between October 4-11, including five early pieces by Werner Herzog, a founding father of New German Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s), but overall the programme was very diverse, with feature films (including three classics dealing with the Great War) plus special food and music events.

The restored version of the 1924 silent film The Epic of Everest was an undoubted and unexpected highlight (Killarney, October 08, and very well attended).

My good friend Liam O’Leary (1910-1992) - Ireland’s foremost independent film archivist, until the inauguration of the Irish Film Institute Archive, which today bears his name – told me thirty years ago about this film, from his time working at the former National Film Archive outside London (he described it as exquisite, but there was no funding to restore it then).

Now, thanks to the KFF initiative, we can savour the near-abstract look and feel of this great documentary and appreciate how that was achieved, given the technology of 90 years ago: a virtually static camera (with a couple of slight pans and tilts), natural lighting, standard 4:3 academy ratio lenses, minimal editing - all beautifully restored by the British Film Institute, including enhancement of the original hand-tinting, but with some frame slippage, and the addition of a new contemporary classical music score by Simon Fisher Turner, which both underscores and counterpoints the minimalist, frequently deep-focus, irised photography.

The indigenous Tibetan community at the foot of Everest, its Lama, donkeys, horses and dogs, villages and monasteries, were full of good-humoured charm, amazing hair styles and unusual musical instruments.

Compared to today’s overkill tourism in the Himalayas, the British mountaineers of 1924 were most inadequately kitted out for this historic adventure (oxygen was kept in reserve, for example, until at least above the 24,000ft line camp).

As the long lens focussed, at a distance of about three miles from Mallory, Irvine and their Sherpa burden carriers, on their final but failed attempt on the 29,000ft summit, we saw tiny black pin heads dwarfed by an utterly endless white snow-scape: dense immensity, pure cinema, film as poetry, exquisite.

The credit for this invaluable, primary source film document belongs to Captain John Noel, director and high altitude cinematographer, and to his daughter Sandra.

Noel had a thick rubber sleeve designed to protect his camera against the air temperatures on Everest - if he put his cheek against the metal to steady the apparatus they froze together - and he edited his 35mm film in a tent at camp, because he couldn’t have gone back to shoot more, since Mallory and Irvine never returned from the summit of Everest.

www.kerryfilmfestival.com

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Jack Kyle: Man for All Seasons

by

George Fleeton

There are two key chapters in Conversations with My Father: Jack Kyle (Justine Kyle McGrath, Hachette Books Ireland, 2014) which resonate long after their accounts of

(1) the twelve years of his international rugby union career: 1947-58, forty-six caps: the out-half who got the ball and took off like a bullet: Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player); and

(2) his thirty-eight years as a consultant surgeon in Asia and Africa.

For his unparalleled success in two such disparate vocations, what drove Jack Kyle was ‘if you want to be good at something, you have to persevere, no matter what’.

Those two spellbinding, utterly honest, compelling and powerfully written-up conversations in the book orchestrated with his daughter, which have been packaged between those career highlights, are Shirley and A Letter to ‘The Irish Times’.

The force of the latter, written from Zambia in 1966, stills resonates mightily today and we are indebted to father and daughter for reviving it for new generations of readers.

The letter castigates, mercilessly, Ian Paisley’s violence-stirring intolerance in Northern Ireland some years before the so-called ‘Troubles’ erupted in 1968.

I didn’t read it at the time (I was studying in France that summer, after the first year of my degree) but now it brings back vivid childhood memories of Paisley’s hate campaign, preached publicly on the streets and parks of Huguenot Lisburn, when I was at the town’s only Catholic boys’ primary school there in the early 1950s.

It is now beyond argument that Paisley helped create a culture of violence, fear and intolerance which we had to endure in so many tragic manifestations until 1994.

Twenty years later his ranting and raving continued to be a dark shadow cast inexorably over all attempts to reach the widely desired sunlight of truly democratic political, economic, social and cultural destinations for our country.

Jack Kyle was greatly saddened, working so far away in Zambia, by the needless deaths of hundreds of people back at home and so felt compelled to write his historic letter (which was reprinted at that time by both the Belfast Telegraph and the Newsletter but not, curiously enough, by the Irish News).

Kyle insists that he raises this vital topic again in 2014 to show not only what he believed history would make of the lately deceased Paisley, but to show how strongly he felt, forty-eight years ago, about the spreading of hatred in a country he loved and was proud to call home.

In this eloquent, classical letter he expresses unequivocal opposition to the views which Paisley and his ilk were expressing in the mid-60s.

For that reason alone this book is to be highly recommended to one and all.

That other chapter, referred to earlier, deals with his very difficult, fifty-three year long relationship with his wife Shirley, a subject which, rightly, in all my own conversations with Jack in recent years, was never once on our agenda.

So in respect of that, I shall also leave you, the reader, to make your own compelling encounter with that sadly emotive conversation in Justine’s book.

It has been because I know so little about rugby that, on our regular evenings spent together in recent years, at dinner, which Jack and I have frequently followed by a night at the opera (in Paris, Belfast and Dublin), we touched more on his time as a surgeon in Zambia, and most particularly on a shared love of France, the French language, poetry (so much of which he can quote word perfectly from memory at the drop of a hat) and classical music, especially the anguished but mould-breaking, career of Maria Callas.

Jack of course broke and held the mould of Irish rugby, at all levels of competition, until the burden of the keeper of that flame was removed, from admittedly weary shoulders, by the Irish Six Nations Grand Slam victory in Millennium Stadium Cardiff five years ago (a match, by the way, he nearly missed being at!)

When Jack Kyle enrolled on a French language course which I was teaching (in what is now the South-Eastern Regional College Newcastle Co. Down) about fifteen years, I now realise his name did not register with me.

Since then a valued friendship has grown and, inter mille alia, one side effect of that is being able to finally appreciate the innate depth of some lines of French poetry, by Alfred de Vigny, which I first learned a life-time ago (and which came back to me recently when re-reading Gustave Flaubert’s impeccable 1856 novel Madame Bovary):

J’aime le son du Cor, le soir, au fond des bois,

Soit qu’il chante les pleurs de la biche aux abois …

… Dieu! Que le son du Cor est triste au fond des bois!

Bambi - as anticipated and described by a significant Romantic poet in 1825?

Or the red deer I met on the road earlier in October (that encounter described at the start of the piece published here immediately above this one)?

Or is it mere discombobulated serendipity writ large, perhaps ….?  Now try translating that sentence into French!

www.hachette.ie

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Mozart’s Music for the Stage

by

George Fleeton

This article was first published in the souvenir Programme to accompany The Genius of Mozart, a Gala presented by Lyric Opera Productions on October 11 in the National Concert Hall Dublin.

It is the companion piece to the text of my pre-performance Talk, on the night, Mozart’s Music for the Theatre, published here separately.

Opera seria

Mozart completed seven opera seria and four of them were featured in the Concert.
Opera seria was a genre of opera written for the court, the monarchy and the nobility so, not surprisingly, it was swept aside a few years after Mozart’s death by political revolutions in Europe.

We heard three arias from that period: two from Mitridate, re di Ponto, and Ah! Di sì nobil alma from Ascanio in Alba.

These two operas were first given in Milan (1770, 1771 respectively) when Mozart was about 15.

Mitridate

and Ascanio are no longer dismissed as the work of a precocious juvenile; indeed the former piece (a tragedy about one of the last independent kings to oppose the expansion of the Roman Empire) is rightly considered the best of his early operas.

From Mitridate there was Va, va, l’error mio palesa/ Go, tell of my wrong-doing: Farnace’s aria - he’s the older son, a political traitor, at odds with his father - in which he threatens the Parthian princess Ismene after a quarrel; and Vado incontro al fato estremo/ I go to face my destiny: Mitridate’s final aria when, mortally wounded, he lives just long enough to be reconciled with Farnace.

If Mitridate todayis the most frequently performed of any of the ten operas which Mozart wrote prior to Idomeneo, re di Creta (Munich 1781), we cannot overstate the importance of Idomeneo in Mozart’s development as a composer of music for the stage.

Then aged 25, and at the start of the happiest and most fulfilling time in his short life, this opera was the first masterly display of his exceptional talents and imagination when writing for performance.

From Idomeneo we heard the Ouverture: compelling, driven forward relentlessly as though by the surge and sweep of the sea - this is Neptune’s domain; and the beautiful piece Placido è il mar -for chorus, enclosing an arioso for Elettra - a prayer for a calm sea and a prosperous voyage, just before Neptune raises another terrible storm.

Mozart was now beginning to create living, breathing, credible characters in his operas, with unprecedented eloquence, and it’s small wonder many believe Idomeneo to be Mozart’s greatest opera, albeit one wherein his music transformed an inadequate libretto into a transcendent work of art.

By the time of La clemenza di Tito (Prague 1791), just over ten years later, he was suffering from ill-health and had put himself under enormous pressure to finish The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem.

The great qualities of Tito, the last important opera seria of the 18th century, were compromised by such constraints on health and work, but it was rightly celebrated in this Concert by four set pieces, concluding with the Finale, for five principals and chorus, which demonstrated the composer’s supreme melodic skills supporting characters of measurable psychological depth, especially the passionate, fearful, tender Vitellia (of whom, in this opera, we don’t hear and see enough).

Was Mozart’s heart in this work? Had he only half his mind on the job? Did he know he had so little time left?

On the night we could appreciate some brilliant ensembles, animating some dramatically powerful situations, with arias of surpassing beauty as Tito, emperor of Rome, forgives everyone in sight.

Singspiel

In Mozart’s day, singspiel was very much a German-language construct to counter, particularly in Vienna, the widely perceived cultural threat of opera in Italian and French.

He wrote five operas in this genre, including the unfinished Zaide (c.1780); set in a Turkish seraglio, Zaide loves the slave Gomatz, and we had her beautiful aria-lullaby Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben/ Rest peacefully, my beloved .

The first attempt, by the way, to stage this lesser-known work was not until 1866, seventy-five years after Mozart’s death.

So the two singspiels for which he is best remembered are The Escape from the Seraglio (1782) and The Magic Flute (1791), and both were first staged in Vienna.

The Ouverture to Il Seraglio is a mini-drama in itself: half way through it stops dead and we hear Belmonte’s tiptoe music (he’s a Spanish noble trying to rescue his imprisoned fiancée Konstanze, from a Turkish harem); later Osmin, head of security, raises the alarm Ha, wie will ich triumphieren, with lots of rage and bluster and some very low notes - too many notes, perhaps? No, just as many as there should be.

Die Zauberflöte

needs no introduction; from it we had the Queen of Night’s second aria Der Hölle Rache: ‘hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’, she sings, across two octaves and several top Fs, as she coerces Pamina into killing Sarastro – which doesn’t happen, so we had the Finale, led by Sarastro, where all, chorus and surviving principals, gave thanks, the sun’s rays had routed the forces of night, and beauty and wisdom prevailed.

Opera buffa

It is of course Mozart’s comic operas (there were five of them) which put the unalterable seal on his genius as composer for the theatre: there is the early Finta giardiniera (1775)and the three Da Ponte operas (1786-90).

From Giardiniera the Concert offered Arminda’s aria Vorrei punirti, indegno - she is a somewhat arrogant and demanding Milanese lady who directs her anger at her lover Belfiore: ‘I want to punish you, you wretch’, she sings, when she discovers him with the gardener-girl Sandrina.

Finally the great trinity of Le nozze diFigaro, DonGiovanni and Così fan tutte, which were at the heart of this Concert.

From Figaro: Cherubino’s Voi che sapete, sung to the Countess Rosina, his little lilting set piece about the confusions of being a teenager in love, with pizzicato strings and lots of woodwind; and then the duet Canzonetta sull’aria, as the Countess dictates a letter to Susanna for Count Almaviva, and their two voices echo and overlap each other’s phrases: … no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about … perhaps something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words?

From Giovanni: the Ouverture, a dark introduction to the narrative which follows, full of menace and not at all indicating a dramma giocoso to come.

When Donna Annadiscovers her father’s body (slain by Giovanni) she vows vengeance in an accompanied recitativo Ah! Del padre in periglio, horror then grief, leading into her strong, decisive duet (Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!) with Don Ottavio; and this set concluded with the next scene, Leporello’s Madamina, il catalogo in which he literally accounts, to Donna Elvira, for Giovanni’s travels throughout Europe, particularly Spain where his tally stood at mille tre (1,003).

From Così, Fiordiligi and Dorabella sing a lovesick, sisterly duet Ah! guarda, sorella as they drool over images of their chaps and think of weddings; then as events unfold Ferrando sings quite movingly of loving and hating Dorabella at the same time Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor/ Betrayed, mocked by her treacherous heart: he has just learned that she didn’t pass the fidelity test set earlier by Don Alfonso.

Mozart in these last operas generally kept his most beautiful music for the female protagonists: this piece, for tenor, was an exception, totally sincere, with its opening broken phrases of hate, then contrasting heavenly woodwind for his love for her.

Mozart completed seventeen operas between 1767 and the end of his life; a further three were left unfinished.

And it is his seven mature full-length works, from Idomeneo onwards, which are now considered indispensable pillars of Western culture.

We couldn’t finish the Concert without a further example of that, one of the most perfect short pieces of music ever written (the text has just 15 words) – Soave sia il vento, a trio for two sopranos and bass, a heartfelt wish for good weather, the harmony led by Fiordiligi, the magic absolute, the genius verified, the evening perfect.

www.lyricoperaproductions.com

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Mozart’s Music for the Theatre

by

George Fleeton

This is the text of my pre-performance Talk given, in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 11, on the occasion of the Lyric Opera production of The Genius of Mozart Gala; it is a companion piece to my souvenir Programme article Mozart’s Music for the Stage (that is the music which he wrote specifically for performance) published here separately.

When we remember that Mozart wrote 46 symphonies, 26 piano concertos, 15 Masses, 26 string quartets and 12 violin concertos, plus 500 other individually catalogued works, in such a short life, we must be impressed that he also completed 17 short and full-length operas for performance on the stages of Europe, in a period of just under 25 years, ending in 1791.

Seven of his mature operas – all of which featured in our Genius of Mozart concert – are today regarded as masterpieces of the genre and are performed frequently all over the world.

But, as we learn to recognise the depths of Mozart’s emotional musical world, do even his best operas have the complexities and depth of Shakespeare’s dramas?

Many scholars think so; I believe the question is unfair to Mozart, and my approach has always been more cautious. Let me explain.

When we remember that Mozart’s operas were written as commissions at court, or for special occasions in the social life of Vienna in particular, that they were not written for us, for posterity, then we realise that Mozart had no medium or long term plans for his operas; you might say they were functional, disposable once their short term purpose was served, and he had already moved on to his next work.

On his tours around Europe as a prodigious child, up to age ten/eleven, the business of opera never arose for him.

Back home in Salzburg, as a teenager and young man, he found, to his frustration, that the arts were not subsidised, that there was no state theatre, few decent musicians, even fewer commissions, and that audiences for stage works had not been cultivated – so the contrast with Vienna, to which city he moved aged 25, could not have been more stark.

Yet in Salzburg he wrote ten operas, four of which were referenced on stage (and some details of which are recounted in my article Mozart’s Music for the Stage).

So the move to Vienna (March 1781)  - where he married Constanze Weber, herself a trained musician, the following year - ignited, unleashed the genius that had been stifled in Salzburg.

His most important opera commission to that date had been Idomeneo in Munich, about six weeks earlier.

Working at white heat, injecting passion he had never felt before into the arias, adding grandeur to the choruses, creating on stage his most flesh and blood characters so far, this was a huge step forward in the 175 year history of opera – but no one seemed to notice that in Mozart’s lifetime.

Performances were sporadic for about a hundred years, and then unannounced Idomeneo was revived in France (1902), Britain (1934), and America (1947).

Idomeneo and LaClemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, his final opera) are known as opera seria – what we see and hear on stage is a succession of arias set to a classical Greek or Roman narrative and designed to show off the singers’ voices.

Singspiel is opera written in German, as decreed by Emperor Joseph II, but it was only a stop gap measure; the form it took was little more than a play with lots of musical numbers dropped in.

Mozart wrote five such singspiel and the two considerably better known ones were  offered on our concert platform: they are the Seraglio and the Magic Flute, each of them a product of Mozart’s fast developing imagination and musicianship in the much more supportive setting of Vienna.

The third sub-set of opera in which Mozart worked was buffa – with cheerful, almost farcical plots, usually based on a well-known play, flexible in construction but also closer to our understanding of opera today.

And that would explain the enormous appeal of Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan Tutte: three operas which put him at the top of the tree from which he has never been shaken down in 223 years.

Which genre did Mozart prefer? From surviving correspondence, we don’t know.

Remember that to the day he died he was a subservient employee, sub-contracted to do the work, expected to take rehearsals and to conduct at least on opening nights.

How then should we define Mozart’s operas, without getting ensnared in discussions about Shakespeare?

Is it that the elevation of the libretto, sometimes mundane - through its synthesis with emotionally powerful music, music which enriches and diversifies the meaning of the text - into a form of drama which, when staged, then resonates with us long after?  

Mozart’s operas may have no psychological depths, but he created new structures for opera, with his unerring ability to find musical gestures entirely appropriate to plot and characters, e.g. Count Almaviva (whose dark state poses the overwhelming problem of the story), or Sarastro (whose wisdom ensures that the powers of darkness yield to the light of the sun).

Mozart had consciously rejected the high blown texts used by Handel and Gluck, he eliminated the castrati and foregrounded the female voice, and these measures separate him and his music from everything that had gone before, and indeed prepared the ground for further developments in opera in the 19th century.

The final ten years of his life, spent in Vienna, where four of his six children died in infancy, were one of the greatest unbroken periods of composition in the history of classical music, the period which included his partnership with the Italian poet/librettist Lorenzo da Ponte that produced those witty human comedies which still live in our imaginations: their three celebrated collaborations secured a reputation for Mozart which he was not spared to enjoy.

Did he even realise that he had lived and worked in the most favourable of circumstances?

The classical orchestra which had grown in size and range was now a principal player in the opera house; singers had learnt to equip themselves with some basic acting skills, their characters were defined by their music; opera had become a highly popular art form with all classes of Viennese society, and audiences were learning to appreciate subtle musical and dramatic detail in the theatre of the 1780s which had had no precedent.

The staging of new elements in opera, such as love, hatred, loyalty and vengeance, gave Mozart’s dramma per musica the kind of universality and durability enjoyed then and since by Shakespeare and Molière.

He had moved opera away from the cold climate of the courts of Austria out beyond to the warmth and noise and smells of the public theatre where the client who wanted to see opera could pay for it and get it.

Even Salieri believed that Mozart’s music was so inspired that it seemed to come straight from God.

Yes he hauled opera out of history – museum opera was left behind - and he left us with living opera; we realise this now when we watch and listen even to his most prestigious predecessors, Monteverdi, Handel or Gluck.

But Mozart did not set out to be a radical innovator, to initiate a sea change in the history of opera; nowhere can we find evidence of any great theory of his about what opera should be; he just worked from job to job, elevating what he did with the natural formidable genius we celebrated in the Concert on October 11.

To paraphrase Saint Paul in Corinthians(1st Letter): ‘And now abideth Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, these three, but the greatest of these is Mozart’.

The next Lyric Opera Productions in NCH Dublin are

a Puccini Opera Gala in February 2015, and

a fully staged production of Lehár’s Merry Widow in May.

www.lyricoperaproductions.com

www.nch.ie

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Salomé & Wilde Salomé

by

George Fleeton

Even if he started with the bottom line ‘Kill that woman!/ Tuez cette femme!’ and worked backwards, no matter how many times Al Pacino cuts and redacts his two films Salomé and Wilde Salomé (first seen at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, see Note below) they are not going to get any better.

Both films were presented again, live in HD from BFI Southbank London on September 21 (Movies@Dundrum Dublin), followed by a live Q&A with Stephen Fry (and lots of empty seats), in a desperate attempt by Pacino to have them taken seriously.

There is no doubting the man’s passion for Oscar Wilde, but both these films are going nowhere because the source material, Wilde’s out-of-character, in a class by itself play Salomé (written in Paris in the autumn of 1891), when held up to the strength of Pacino’s light, is simply not substantial enough for this kind of exposure.

‘I am writing’, said Wilde at the time, ‘a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain’.

Pacino is once more using cinema to explore theatre, as he had done with the documentary Looking for Richard (the 3rd), his first film as director in 1996, and that is a laudable aspiration. 

As I understand it, this Salomé was filmed during Estelle Parson’s production of the play at the Wadsworth Theatre Los Angeles in 2006, and it suffers from Jessica Chastain’s inexperience at that time as an actress and by her very one dimensional performance and its self-evident under-direction.

*

Of Wilde’s seven completed plays, written 1879-94, his two early tragedies, Vera or The Nihilists and The Duchess of Padua, although they both read well, may be deemed unplayable.

That leaves us with the four excellent society comedies: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and his final masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.

On the margins of these, the little-known Florentine Tragedy is only a fragment, but there is one further curiosity among his works for the stage: La Sainte Courtisane, another fragment (written at the same time as Salomé and Earnest) and this piece, which takes less than fifteen minutes to read, is a full cousin to Salomé – a Christian hermit Honorius who lives in a cave fronted by a large crucifix is confronted by Myrrhina, an Emperor’s daughter, covered with jewels, in a purple cloak, who arrives in the Egyptian desert to tempt him with her wealth and beauty.

She finds God and remains there, converted to righteousness and austerity, while she converts him to the life of pleasure which she has renounced and he leaves ‘to taste of the seven sins’.

It is of course an allegory and it has the same repetitive but elaborate language used in Salomé which itself is unlike anything else he wrote.

According to Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland, writing in 1948, Salome was being rehearsed in June 1892 by Sarah Bernhardt, for production in the Palace Theatre London, when the Lord Chamberlain refused a licence on the grounds that it introduced, on to the stage, biblical characters.

The play was then published in French eight months later (in Wilde’s spoken French; for he wrote French as he spoke it and this was much better than his written French), and in 1894 Lord Alfred Douglas may have been responsible for the translation  into English, illustrated with those iconic sketches by Aubrey Beardsley.

Its first performance was in Paris in February 1896 during the two years Wilde spent in Reading Gaol, and he never saw it staged; he claimed he was prouder of it than any other of his plays; and its first public performance only took place in the Savoy Theatre London in October 1931.

*

Pacino’s film captures a modern dress, staged reading of the play in which the lines are acted ‘off book’, i.e. not fully staged; it is the words that are supposed to command our attention.

This becomes clearer when we see its partner documentary Wilde Salome which deals, honestly enough (theatre audiences at the Wadsworth, we are told, felt cheated by it) but most unsatisfactorily with both the theatre version and the film he shot alongside it during the day in a nearby film studio sound stage.

This only emphasises the play’s own inadequacies and that is responsible for the undoing of Pacino’s entire project.

Further, his performance as Herod is so poorly judged, so uncharismatic, that it distracts painfully from any of the few qualities the play might have, such as its esoteric language and its ethereal theme, and from the stage production’s attempts to deal with male gaze theory and encroaching lunaticism.

*

Perhaps the less said about the documentary and the Q&A the better?

Wilde Salome is a car crash, padded out with overlong extracts from the film; a totally inexplicable set up of scenes, with a camel in tow, in the Mojave Desert; comments from the insufferable Bono; and Pacino’s visits to Dublin, London and Paris in a search for Wilde which had no focus whatsoever.

On stage afterwards, Stephen Fry talked too much and we got nothing new from Pacino, except that  his accent and attitude when playing Herod reminds me now of Eli Wallach’s deportment in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

In relation to Wilde, there were references in the interview to Shakespeare, Beckett and Pinter but these were not followed up.

Pacino did however comment frankly on how much of a meal he had made of these two films and on the innate silliness of what actors do to make a living.

By contrast, when Jessica Chastain had an opportunity to speak, reflecting on the experience eight years later, she was very articulate.

But Fry managed to save blushes all round with three final, incisive comments.

He linked, to Wilde’s work, Michelangelo’s quote, in reference to ‘David’, that ‘in every block of marble I see the statute as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect …’

Fry added that, in terms of Oscar Wilde’s personal and private life, he was a giant among pygmies.

And finally he stated that Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde is the best.

Amen to that, at least they got that right.
 *
There are two significant operas based on Wilde's  play and both are being staged in Ireland in the coming months.
 
At Wexford Festival Opera, Antoine Mariotte's version will be sung by Israeli soprano Na'ama Goldman on October 22, 25, 28 and 30.

Then on February o6 and 08 next, Richard Strauss' work will be sung by Northern Irish soprano Giselle Allen in the Grand Opera House Belfast.

www.wexfordopera.com

www.niopera.com

*
N
ote.

For my account of Venice Film Festival 2011, see

www.downnews.co.uk/venice-uncut

www.downnews.co.uk/venice-uncut-part-two

and especially

www.downnews.co.uk/venice-uncut-part-3

for original comment on Al Pacino’s film Wilde Salomé.

 

© georgefleeton mmxiv


The Moynihan/O’Leary Duo at Calary

by

George Fleeton

It is gratifying at this stage of my life to attend a recital of music most of which I had not heard before (Calary, September 18).

Soprano Deirdre Moynihan and classical guitarist Alec O’Leary have just released their début CD From the Olive Tree/Del olivo and they started their launch tour (which will take in Dublin, Listowel, Limerick, Cork and Belfast) with a performance at Music in Calary, the county Wicklow venue often referred to in these pages.

Several pieces - arrangements of the Spanish poems of García Lorca, plus some songs composed by Joaquín Rodrigo - constituted the framework of a delightfully relaxed and engaging recital of lullabies and art songs from Andalucía.

All this reminded me of the night the great Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe sang a programme of  Andalucian songs in the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney, back in March 2006; she was 73 then and her comportment on stage was memorably dignified and stately.
 


The added values, on the evening in Calary, were very fine guitar arrangements of three of the younger Scarlatti’s sonatas for harpsichord/fortepiano.

But the surprise package was some film music which showed off the impressive qualities of Deirdre Moynihan’s voice: Brucia la terra mia, sung in the Sicilian lyrics of Giuseppe Rinaldi to Nino Rota’s love theme from The Godfather films; Llorando, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s ballad Crying from 1961, which turned up 40 years later in that very cryptic film Mulholland Drive; and Verde Luna, from the film Blood and Sand (1941), a song by Vicente Gómez which Rita Hayworth appeared to sing to her own guitar accompaniment.

Highlight of the evening? For me, yes, and I would encourage the Moynihan/O’Leary Duo to develop this strand of film songs into a dedicated recital and a second CD.

www.moynihanolearyduo.com

My pre-performance Talk Mozart’s Music for the Theatre is at 7.00pm in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 11, followed by The Genius of Mozart Concert, presented by Lyric Opera Productions.

And my 10-week course on World Cinema (100 Films that Changed our Lives) starts in Bray Institute of Further Education on September 24, at 7.30pm. Ring 01 2866111 to enrol.

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Life and Music of Édith Piaf

& 1st Newry Music Festival

by
George Fleeton

In December 2015 the centenary of the birth of Édith Piaf will be marked widely in France and elsewhere.

At the National Concert Hall Dublin (September 12), in a personal tribute to Piaf, chanteuse de luxe Derby Browne and her Café de Paris ensemble – all smiles - brought to life, for a capacity lunch-time audience, the Pigalle quartier of Paris where Piaf first made her mark as a street-singer in 1935.

This was a concert abrim with unaffected affection for Piaf and her singular brand of chanson réaliste.

After a short medley from the four-piece ensemble  Mlle Browne swung straight into Milord, L’accordéoniste and La foule, finishing, nine songs later, with Les feuilles mortes, Non, je ne regrette rien and La vie en rose.

In the mix too – mostly Piaf’s later songbook - was Padam, padam, not as well known, yet the only song I can remember from her concert in L’Olympia on a first visit to Paris in late April 1962.

Derby Browne has got the feel and le geste of Piaf’s stage craft spot on, particularly the hands and arms; her bilingual delivery embraces everyone in the audience, but her links (there was a story about going to Paris with an accordionist friend to ‘find’ Piaf) were less secure than her singing, while single roses on the front row seats were a generous gallic touch.

The Cafe de Paris ensemble comprises Marta Siermantowska, accordion, David Wray, piano, Joe Csibi, double bass and Jon Henderson, guitar. 

Her next concert, The Winter Café, is on November 28, in the National Concert Hall.

www.derbybrowne.com

*

Perusing the programme for the 1st Newry Music Festival (Iúr Cinn Fleadh), what stood out from rich traditional-music-in-pubs’ fare was a concert of mostly sacred music offered by the recently formed Gaudeamus ChamberChoir, under the direction of Cathal Murphy.

So off to St Colman’s College chapel (September 12) for an inspiring 45 minutes of harmony and organ in which Palestrina, Mozart, Howard Goodall, and Tommy Sands, inter alia, all took their rightful places.

With no programme notes available, and with no additional lighting on the choir, it isn’t possible to name the excellent soloists; nonetheless the musical highlights were:

-Mozart’s Ave verum which was written at the very end of his short life, when he was working on the unfinished Requiem (1791); a piece of music learnt when I was about eight years old and which has stayed with me all my life;

-Contemporary composer Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light Requiem is just six years old, and from it we heard the 'Lacrymosa', a memorable setting of Do not stand at my grave and weep …

-The Sands’ song County Down was the surprise package, which, given the occasion, appropriately concluded a superb short concert, clearly enjoyed by all the families and children present on the night.

www.gaudeamuschoir.com

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) & Cinema Paradiso

by

George Fleeton

At the invitation of the 1st Full Moon Film Festival , organised by Newcastle Community Cinema, I introduced a double bill of Italian films in the Annesley Hall Newcastle Co Down (September 13); herewith the text of those introductions:

Ladri di biciclette

The story of this film is deceptively simple, and the adept casting of a small boy lent significant emotional impact to a narrative otherwise lacking in easy sentimentality.

This film graduated from the ‘tell it like it is’ school of storytelling, the neo-realism of 1940s’ Italian cinema, a movement that started during the war as an outraged rejection of the glossy, unreal world of white telephones and serene glamour in state-sponsored films promoted by the Fascists in the 1930s.

If one working definition of a great film is ‘a great story well told’, Bicycle Thieves qualifies because it is embedded in that new and dynamic realism of European cinema which emerged after World War 2 (a challenge only taken up by French cinema ten years later in an equally revolutionary movement known as the New Wave, la nouvelle vague).

Bicycle Thieves

is a stark, urban odyssey, a herculean quest, a modest re-write of part of Dante’s Inferno, a dramatically convincing piece of social realism, filmed in unadorned locations in working class Rome, the open city, still traumatised by war and by liberation, as father and son, Ricci and Bruno, in bitter desperation, search for a stolen bicycle (the model is a ‘Fides’ which means faith): the bicycle one man needs for work, to support his family, another man steals, to sell, to support, in turn, his family.

The storyteller, Vittorio de Sica (who had acted in some of those white telephone movies) pulls no punches here in his criticism of post-Mussolini Italy, its unemployment, its thieving and its poverty in a seemingly uncaring regime, which included the Catholic Church’s double standards regarding the souls of the poor.

If that description of the film sounds grim, it is at the same time suffused with extraordinary compassion and a most sympathetic understanding of its two protagonists, played by non-professionals Maggiorani as Ricci and little Staiola as Bruno.

Why does Bicycle Thieves still resonate with us 66 years after its release?

Is it because we can identify with the victimisation and marginalisation of the impoverished bill-board poster, Ricci, and his relationship with the unfeeling crowd: he emerges from one crowd at the start, and will walk away into another crowd at the end?

Cyclical events abound in a film about bicycles, where wheels turn both literally and metaphorically, and these events help to define Ricci and Bruno’s world: he meets a crowd of workers planning a strike, a crowd of black marketeers, a crowd of equally poor people praying in a church at a soup kitchen; a crowd in the cynical fortune-teller’s apartment; a crowd on the banks of the Tiber when a child drowns, and finally a crowd of football fans - crowds of crowds.

Ricci’s face in the crowd could be any one of those, but for de Sica he is the highlighted representative, the fall-guy for the society the director is criticising, and the stolen bicycle is the hook on which this critique is hung.

The theft of the bicycle organises the film’s narrative thrust; it gives us access to the small social tragedies we glimpse in immediate post-war Rome; this in turn makes the film - and its continuing appeal to new audiences – an important, primary-source, historical document.

This man in the street, Ricci, is more contemporary Everyman than classical Ulysses.

Will his son Bruno’s prospects be any better?

Will the frantic criss-crossing of the city, a city full of bicycles, the false leads, the humiliation of his father in public, their growing desperation (which is beautifully counterpointed in their scene together in the restaurant, the inter-dependence of father and son, bonding, not unravelling) leave the permanent scars associated, both in real life and in realist cinema, with innocents betrayed?

This key question is unresolved; there is no easy movie relief in this film; the film-maker is obliging us to think for ourselves, to sort it out in our heads; aren’t the streets of any great city filled with people who are having a hard time? Isn’t the world full of bicycle thieves or people like them? Is theft the ultimate behaviour shared by all the poor in a shattered society?

Today we don’t feel as strongly about this film as audiences worldwide did in 1948.

A stolen bicycle no longer signifies hunger and deprivation.

But the basic facts of life and of cinema never change – solitude, loneliness and alienation of the individual in a wider humanity which seems not to notice and cares less: this is still frequently the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines and too few of next month’s new, more thought-provoking films.

Yes, Italy has grown out of its post-war poverty.

But great films from that period, all of them illusions of reality, are still seen today, and they still work.

de Sica, who died 40 years ago, described his neo-realist films as a struggle against the absence of human solidarity, and the indifference of society towards suffering.

His first films were a word in favour of the poor and the unhappy: The Children are Watching Us, Shoeshine, Miracle in Milan,Umberto D - great films of pictorial grace and emotional severity, just like Bicycle Thieves.

*

Cinema Paradiso

When introducing the previous film Bicycle Thieves, I began by saying that the story was deceptively simple, and that the inspired casting of a small boy lent significant emotional impact to a narrative which completely lacked easy sentimentality.

I am going to repeat that, except for those final words.

Cinema Paradiso

is a deceptively simple narrative in which the casting of a small boy lends significant emotional impact to a film which is totally overloaded with clumsy sentimentality.

That is not a blast at this properly, very popular film, but it is a totally different creature of Italian cinema, separated from the former film by 40 years.

What is the raison d’être of this film, regarded, seven years ago, by readers of The Guardian, as the greatest foreign language movie ever made?

It seems to be celebrating nostalgia for the old home town and its community life, whenever that is centred round the local picture house and the village eccentrics.

These tableaux include the priest who censors the films, especially the kissing scenes, the madman who thinks he owns the piazza, the father who hasn’t yet returned from the Russian front, and the loneliness of the long distance projectionist, whose death sparks the back story, the extended flashback.

All this is very fetching and authentic-looking (it was shot around Palermo, the director’s home place).

So what have we got?

There’s this little sun-baked town in Sicily, not the prettiest, not the worst, in which there lives this little boy.

His name is Toto, he has a mamma but no papà, so he spends his time in the projection room at the Paradiso cinema, where the operator Alfredo is a kindly soul, with lots of home-spun philosophy:

Don’t look back; don’t write; don’t give in to nostalgia, Alfredo tells Toto; whatever you end up doing, love it.

And later: life is not what you see in films, life is much harder.

It is with this cack-handed advice that Alfredo forcibly writes the script of Toto’s life.

One day nitrate film stock bursts into flames and Alfredo is badly injured, whereupon Toto takes over the job, and so on and so forth.....

There is craft and imagination in this film; and there is also manipulation and massaging of our responses to its unashamed sentimentality.

Twenty years going to the cinema, shouts one disgruntled customer, and I’ve never seen a kiss!

There are at least three versions of Cinema Paradiso and, having seen them, the shortest cut (about two hours) is easily the best: the qualities of the screen-writing, the integration of the subplots and the focus on the central characters are all sharper and more melodramatically convincing than in the longer cuts.

The affection of the director Tornatore for his subject, his locations, his knowledge of cinema (the poster of Rita Hayworth, in the projection room, is the same as that being posted by Ricci in BicycleThieves moments before his bike is stolen) – these ingredients give the film considerable backbone.

Here’s a challenge for you: can you identify and correctly name the legion of films from which we see clips in the Paradiso picture house?

The consolation question is: can you spot when a member of the audience is murdered in the cinema during a film and nobody notices?

The film is somewhat compromised in that the principal adult actors are French, dubbed in Italian (as is the leading actress, who turns up only in the last half hour of the Director’s Cut), but this is probably something imposed by the French co-producers of the film.

When the grown-up Toto returns to town for Alfredo’s funeral, after an absence of thirty years, the director’s sure-handed touch, seen in the backstory, seems to desert him, but to be fair the real weakness of these scenes (the funeral, the visit to the old picture house, the awkward encounter with the family he doesn’t really know) may lie in the rather wooden performance of the adult French actor.

In his recherche du temps perdu, he finds that the past is another country where things had been done differently, and that the real link to the present is an old can of 35mm film which he takes back to Rome to view, and this provides us with the most fascinating and genuinely nostalgic sequence of the entire film, very clever, unexpected and final.

Final in that it makes sense of what seemed to be random and often obscure film clips from earlier in the story, as this film conspires with us to make our personal responses – to it and to cinema in general - its real objective.

When analysed in this way, we can forgive the journey through clumsy sentiment and self-indulgent nostalgia to reach a destination of a larger and more resonant significance.

Tornatore’s films are not well known in this country.

He’s Sicilian, approaching 60, and has written and directed about ten films, of which Cinema Paradiso was his second.

But his best film in my estimation is La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman) from 2006.

www.newcastlecinema.org

©georgefleetonmmxiv


Manon Lescaut ,

Cavalleria Rusticana & I Pagliacci

by

George Fleeton

The Live-in-HD phenomenon (sometimes referred to as ‘event cinema’ and frequently reviewed in these pages) has been developing beyond the confines of the Metropolitan Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Berlin Philharmonic - those pioneers of a new genre of multiplex entertainment brought to us in recent years by Classical Arts Ireland.

In the greater Dublin area, through the good offices of the awkwardly named Movies @ Cinemas (Swords and Dundrum) it was possible this summer to see and hear some operas live in HD from other landmark venues such as Covent Garden (Manon Lescaut, June 24) and Taormina Sicily (Cavalleria and Pagliacci, July 17).

*

Lescaut , essentially a sentimental melodrama and Puccini’s third opera (1893), deserved a more nuanced and respectful production than that given, after a generation’s absence from its repertoire, by the Royal Opera House in June.

Any subtlety in the libretto (which amazingly  survived six different hands, including Puccini’s, fiddling with it) went out of the window, sacrificed on the altar of naturalism and vulgarity, while subtexts, barely there in the script, such as lust, greed and power, were self-indulgently foregrounded.

Soprano Opolais (an outstanding interpreter of Puccini’s little-women-in-love) and tenor Kaufmann rose above all this desecration of a great piece of musical drama, savouring, understanding, loving the music and conveying that to us above and beyond the trivial din of the staging, sets and costumes.

You begin to worry about opera directors and their hugely inflated egos when their productions are chosen for Live in HD relays around the world.

Are we slowly sliding towards lowest-common-denominator tabloid pap, or sensationalist Jerry Springer-like reality shows, as was self-evident in Acts 2 and 3 of this production?

The saving graces were sparse: Act 1 was busy and distracting and the four principals were persuasively presented for our inspection; but the pathos of Act 4, and its setting (sola perduta abbandonata on a fractured freeway in a landa desolata),  was particularly effective: indeed what sprung vividly to mind (to paraphrase Chris Rea) was

On their journey ‘cross the wilderness,

from the desert to the well,

this ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway –

oh, no, this is the road to hell.

But most importantly of all, maestro Pappano did not for one moment forget what Puccini was about: writing music that is adroit (Donna non vidi mai), emotive (In quelle trine morbide) and intense, though naïve too (the Intermezzo) - it all too often sounds better than it is when compared to what was to follow, namely La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

There have been some superb, vintage recordings of Manon Lescaut which are very difficult to track down today, whether sung by Licia Albanese (who has just died), Renata Tebaldi or Magda Olivero (who is 104 years old), while the most accessible CD is Maria Callas’ reading, from her peak in 1957.

*

Unfortunately the relay of Cavalleria and Pagliacci from Taormina in July was pre-corded, not live, and it is important that patrons are advised of this in advance, where possible.

As a former film projectionist, I was probably more aware than most that there were eleventh hour technical problems and these were confirmed to me the following day, namely that the technicians’ union in the theatre in Sicily had gone on strike.

However both operas had been recorded two days previously, with the same casts, so it was a deferred relay which we saw on the night.

This Cavalleria, Enrico Castiglione’s production of Mascagni’s Sicilian tragedy of 1890, was masterly in the use he made, for example, of the prelude and the intermezzo to reinforce the narrative and to prefigure the tragedy, and this was etched into the imagination, for a long time to come, by Genova-born soprano Daniela Dessì whose grasp of her difficult role, Santuzza, was word and gesture perfect, while her dominance of the choruses in the Regina coeli was utterly convincing.

Any unevenness in the staging arose, to my way of thinking, from the indifferent casting of the male parts (Turridu and Alfio) but this could be said to have been balanced off by the mesmerising performance of María José Trulu as Santuzza’s mother, and by Giuseppina Piunti’s unashamed scene-stealing as Lola.

This must be one of the simplest and most user-friendly short operas in the history of the genre; Mascagni’s writing, when not too padded out, is flawless, and the love and jealousy stuff is dramatically high voltage.

 

The contrast with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci means that this latter opera frequently suffers in the comparison, but it shouldn’t even though the relationship between the two operas on stage is, one might say, siamese.

It’s exactly two years younger than Cavalleria and it is - at least melodramatically - superior to it; the narrative is stormier, the music has a compelling forward drive, as in foot-to-the-floor stuff, recitativo is dispensed with and the chorus is busy, busy. 

Castiglione again directed and was very well served by the well-established tenor Piero Giuliacci (Canio) and by soprano Chiara Taigi (Nedda).

It is always problematic producing the play within the play in Act 2, as Pagliaccio, Columbina and the others take over the burden of the narrative, and when the ‘true-life reality’ breaks out, in the presence of the on-stage audience, the great tirade of jealousy should be breath-taking, frenzied, awe-ful, before the double murder caps it all and the commedia è finita.

This production didn’t quite manage that; the lines were not clear enough, and things appeared to be rushed into the buffers.

But on balance, it was valuable to see both operas twinned once more on the same night and to be reminded just what singular creatures of the verismo sub-genre they are.

 

www.classicalartsireland.com

For future ‘event cinema’ offerings, under the aegis of Movies@Cinemas, see www.movies-at.ie

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Music in Calary

by

George Fleeton

If the Sugar Loaf Mountain in County Wicklow had a southern-lying shadow (which is astronomically impossible) that is where we find Calary Church and Parish, just off the R755 - a 180 year old outpost of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Glendalough.

For the last fifteen years in Calary Church there have been regular music events in what is an impressively compact and acoustically excellent setting.

Most recently (August 21) three members of Musici Ireland gave an interesting Recital of music arranged for  chamber ensemble comprising viola, flute and harp, a very democratic combination of instruments, balanced and counterpointed.

Musici Ireland (not to be confused with I Musici di Roma, still on the road after sixty years ) was formed just a couple of  years ago as a flexible, conductorless multi-instrumental grouping of Irish musicians, prepared to take their music to unusual venues, and Calary certainly fits that bill.

Their programme was wide-ranging, with good matching foundations in pieces by Debussy and Ravel, both paragons of French impressionist music: firstly Debussy’s Sonata from 1915, and then Ravel’s earlier work, a Sonatine from about 1905, originally written for piano.

This was music which both interpreted the light, and defined the light-ness, of French music from a hundred years ago before the Great War darkened everything.

Limerick-born composer John Buckley was present in Calary on the night and we heard his arrangements of The Bard of Armagh (one Phelim Brady), the hornpipe The Plains of Boyle, and blind O’Carolan’s tribute to Eleanor Plunkett.

Harpist Diane Marshall and flautist Vourneen Ryan matched this with their own arrangements of My Lagan Love and the slow air The Coulin; and their medley finished with two more evocative O’Carolan pieces, his Farewell to Music and the very lyrical Sí bheag, sí mhór.

Beth McNinch, viola, is artistic director of Musici Ireland and under her inspiration the evening included short trios by Bax and Dubois, in music-making of the highest order.

*

Earlier this summer at Calary (June 28) Anna Cashell, violin, and Simon Watterton, piano, played a thoughtful and well-sustained programme anchored with music by Mozart and Beethoven (the F major violin sonata, composed when Mozart was 25, and Beethoven’s C major Waldstein sonata), each piece finely sculpted con grande sentimento.

Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances turned up - a suite of very short tunes from Transylvania - and touches of Kreisler, Ysaye and de Falla constructively filled out a Recital which concluded with Franck’s wonderful A major Sonata.

The previous evening Anna and Simon had played this programme in Chiswick, so the contrast with the uncladded stone acoustic of Calary must have added a layer of inspiration to their music, given too that they were married recently in the Church.

Their debut CD, Encore, majors on the music of Shostakovich (and Mozart) with a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar pieces by Elgar, Kreisler, Brahms, Bruch and Schnittke.
*
The final Recital at Calary is on September 18 (8pm) and will feature soprano Deirdre Moynihan, with Alec O’Leary on guitar, in a programme called ‘Corners of Spain’, so expect music by de Falla and Rodrigo.

www.musici.ie

www.annacashell.com

www.newcastleparish.org

(c) georgefleeton mmxiv


Fifth Lismore Music Festival

by

George Fleeton

Self-proclaimed as Ireland’s national circus, Fossett’s has significant track record in that its journey began in 1888.

Today circus, both classical and contemporary, is an art form recognised and supported by the Arts Council (Dublin).

At this year's 5th Lismore Music Festival  in Co. Waterford (May 31, June 01) the Arts Council was distinctly absent, while Fossetts Circus - albeit the shadow rather than the substance - was distinctively present: their big top, in the upper yard of Lismore Castle, encased the circus ring in which Mozart's opera The Magic Flute was staged, without any Arts Funding, let it be said, but with imaginative third party sponsorship and fundraising.
 

*

On a third consecutive visit to this annual Festival, it was a pleasure to visit Cappoquin House again, this time for Kate Ellis’ unusual high noon recital of commissioned works for cello and electronics.

If instrumental music is the most abstract of all art forms, this sonic arts event pushed the boundaries of abstraction out further to quite esoteric levels; but I found Rory Tangney’s ‘spontaneous creation of a large scale drawing’, as a visual accompaniment to the music, quite distracting - an attempt perhaps to redefine mixed media as in: stream-of-consciousness drawing + processed sounds + live cello?

Kate Ellis played non-conventional, sometimes quite dramatic commissioned works by such established Irish composers as Laura Sheeran and Judith Ring, and also music by Linda Buckley who specialises in electronics, all of it new to my ear.

Her programme concluded with a piece by Niall Vallely, a composer with strong links to the Armagh Pipers’ Club; originally written for seven cellos, this was music which perfectly suited both this Festival and the very fine setting of Cappoquin House, and the invitation to the audience was to listen, in future, to the cello with new ears: a message too late for Casals’ or du Pré’s audiences but very valid for us today.

*

A second lunchtime recital, in a more traditionally classical vein, took place the following day at nearby Salterbridge House, further upstream along the River Blackwater from Cappoquin.

The performers were flautist Bill Dowdall and his three daughters Aoife (violin), Lisa (viola) and Jenny (cello).

In a beautiful programme comprising Haydn, Bach and Mozart, this was exquisite summer music-making pitched at perfection.

Joseph Haydn’s Flute Quartet II in D major opened the Recital and was followed by J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which we heard eight, in an arrangement for the Dowdall sisters’ string trio.

Father Bill then re-joined the group for the Mozart Flute Quartet No. 3 in C major which concluded a well appreciated celebration of 18th century classical music.

And t0 cap this, the Dowdall family constituted fifty per cent of the Festival’s chamber orchestra, in Fossett’s big top, for the two performances of The Magic Flute.

*

The third recital of the weekend took place in St Carthage’s Cathedral Lismore at which soprano Cara O’Sullivan was accompanied by pianist Brian Hughes.

O’Sullivan, whose signature on the operatic repertoire in performance in Ireland is, has been and will continue to be preeminent, has some superb self-presentation skills, walks about on bare feet and has a great sense of humour embedded in the anecdotal links between her songs.

This - bare feet and mischief - we were told was to lower her heartbeat between numbers, in five languages, as she moved smoothly from a selection of arie antiche from the 17th and 18th centuries (music which Callas used to warm up her voice) to three Schubert lieder of which the most familiar was Die forelle (The Trout).

But Cara O’Sullivan’s real strengths are in opera, and she closed the first part of her programme with three contrasting arias - Handel’s Care selve, Dvořák’s Song to the Moon and Mozart’s Come scoglio - each impeccably conveyed.

Part two comprised what she calls her ‘tchoons’, her relaxed party pieces, some of which included a module of work she had done with Brian Hughes for his music degree, and there was a tribute to a forerunner of hers, Rita Lynch - born in Co. Cork one hundred years ago - a renowned and acclaimed soprano whose heyday was the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

This was a textbook example of what a summer Sunday afternoon recital should be, complete with show-stealing swallows twittering around the transept and the chancel.

*

Mozart’s Magic Flute in Fossett’s big top, within Lismore Castle grounds, was innovative to say the least and re-defined the concepts of ‘opera-in-a-tent’ or pop-up opera.

Did it work? It seemed under-rehearsed, the circus ring was too large for what is essentially an opera built on a series of intimate tableaux and the chamber orchestra (eight instruments) was too far away from the action.

The circus costumes, styled by Fossetts, certainly fitted the concept, and there were little visual resonances I felt, here and there in the production, of Fellini (La Strada, 8½), Chaplin (Limelight) and Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci).

When we arrived coloratura soprano Kim Sheehan, who sang Queen of Night, was already harnessed in, high above the ring (like the boy sitting on the crescent moon, fishing, in Spielbergs’ Dreamworks logo) and she made her dramatic act one descent without missing a note.

Indeed all the voices sounded fine, although the disconnect with the band was always evident and this led to a much fragmented atmosphere throughout, in an acoustic which had no focus.

So Tamino (Lawrence Thackeray) and Pamina (Ioana Pipelea) had some extra challenges to overcome in addition to silence, fire and water.

The Three Boys were sung by a dozen of Ite O’Donovan’s Piccolo Lasso choristers, an innovation which did not really work, which hardly mattered, for Magic Flute is after all an operatic animal with eccentric features, a masonic, musical camel designed by Schikaneder’s scratch collection of singers, entertainers and musicians; he was the original showman-ringmaster, a hundred years before Fossetts was set up.

Unlike most other operas, this one has never been tied down to convention: its two main film adaptations for instance (by Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh) are as different as chalk and cheese.

But the music is paramount; indeed this opera has its own kind of music, several kinds of music in fact, unlike anything else in Mozart’s opera output and, against the odds, conductor Marco Zambelli managed to hold together convincingly the elements of this pantomimic singspiel for which he alone had responsibility.

*

Do remember that we must approach pop up summer opera with lower than usual expectations.

Lismore is not bland Glyndebourne, nor safe-as-houses Torre del Lago; this is closer to what Castleward Opera and Loughcrew Opera used to be about: no subsidies, the infectious enthusiasm of volunteers, fit-up ad-hoc assemblies of singers, musicians and crews, a lengthy interval to eat and drink - in all a leisurely, sometimes elegant outdoor adventure.

*

Next year the Sixth Lismore Music Festival 2015 will centre around two performances of Rossini’s twentieth opera La Cenerentola/Cinderella (1817), on May 30 & 31.

www.lismoremusicfestival.com

www.cappoquinhouseandgardens.com

www.salterbridge-houseandgarden.com

For the Fourth Lismore Music Festival 2013 review, see

www.downnews.co.uk/the-fourth-lismore-music-festival

© georgefleeton mmxiv


   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madama Butterfly

 

by

 

Vivian Coates

 

 

No matter how many times you sit before the red velvet curtains to experience the beauty and the power of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly you wait in anticipation of something powerful and emotional.

On June 19 (Grand Opera House Belfast), at Scottish Opera’s touring production, we had a rather mixed bag.

From the opening bars, the functional, minimalist set was in keeping with the simple and naturalistic ways of Japanese culture, with very fine lighting throughout, always synchronized and highlighting the varying moods of this amazing score.

I think the main problem of the evening was the casting of this opera.

To my ears, only one of the four leads was really properly cast, and that was the title role.

Hye-Youn Lee as Cio-Cio San had subtlety in abundance and then the power to climax above the loud orchestral moments, in an effective and dramatic journey through this dangerous and demanding role.

Her progression from teenage youthfulness to darkest despair was expertly handled.

She was a triumph and deserved the large and continuous ovation at the end.

The role of Suzuki did not fare well alongside this. 

Vocally Louise Collett got lost in the flower duet and in the final Act 3 trio.

It may, however, not have been her fault.

One of the key problems of this production was the fact that singers sang across the stage too much.

Basic stagecraft was very much amiss here and Ms Collett and other characters were left standing around a lot of the time with little to do, while there was no attempt to anticipate the devastation that was to fall on Cio-Cio San.

The great emotional bond that develops between Cio- Cio San and Suzuki just wasn’t there, and we missed it.

The men fared less well.

José Ferrero, as B.F Pinkerton, was incorrectly cast in this role.

He had energy and looked well, but over-acted a little too much which led to his performance being somewhat unsatisfactory.

The voice was pleasant but not large enough for this house.

It lacked spinto and blade to cut through the lush and textured orchestrations.

The top of the voice was quite insecure on several occasions, which made me feel very uneasy.

His Addio, fiorito asil was an example of this.

This was a most challenging role for Mr. Ferrero and he fell short of the mark.

Well-schooled, but at times quite light, Marcin Bronikowski portrayed the role of Sharpless sympathetically, but lack of production left him, once again, standing around awkwardly.

His is a very smooth baritone, but it lacked punch in the forte sections of the score.

The best moment for me was the letter scene and the way in which both he and Cio-Cio San worked this magical and delicate section of the opera.

Goro, the grotesque and opportunistic marriage broker, sung by tenor Adrian Thompson, was vocally strong but clearly lacked any sense of Japanese characterization, and he didn’t reveal the malevolence which lies underneath his interesting character.

It was all too straight forward and performed in too business-like a fashion.

His eavesdropping behind the screen shutter was not well produced and his banishment from the house was weak…….in fact, it never happened: the one nice thing that did happen here was the child, Sorrow, throwing his toy at Goro when he left.

Jonathan May, who played The Bonze, was a non-event: lifelessly he entered, sang and left again; no threats to Cio-Cio San, and no sense of menace or drama which weakened the effect of this important scene.

The blond and blue-eyed Sorrow was beautifully played by Jude Daly; he handled everything he was given to do.

And the final image of the opera was very powerful - just him standing under a single light, looking upwards as the curtain came down.

There is only a small participation for the chorus in this opera, and a reduced chorus (it is not scored for basses) provided a small sound in the tutti sections.

It did not help that the tenors were placed at the very back of the stage in Act 1, while, later, the haunting effect of the humming chorus did not come across well, as placement was again an issue here, with the chorus offstage; and it seemed as if there were no female voices contributing.

Conductor Marco Guidarini led the orchestra, and things generally ran smoothly.

Although tentative at the beginning, there were notable and serious glitches on the musical side, with some imbalances between stage and pit and some essential sounds missing from the orchestral pallet: the Japanese gongs, for example, from the wedding scene, and the composer’s indication of col legno was not observed during the aria Che tua madre.

All in all, this revival of David McVicar’s 2000 production, in the original set designed by Yannis Thavoris, offered very mixed results: it was by and large a tired and unimaginative reading, which needed more integration of the characters throughout.

There were some nice touches though: the house set and the moon rising in Act 1,  the formality and stiffness of Prince Yamadori in Act 2, and  Pinkerton paying off Sharpless who in turn pays off Suzuki for doing the dirty work.

But apart from the consistent and committed Hye-Youn Lee in the title role, this was a luke-warm Madama Butterfly which never ignited in us any sense of the passions which Puccini spent so much time creating in this magical and most sensuous of scores. 

www.scottishopera.org.uk


Artistic Director of Lyric Opera Productions for twenty years, Vivian Coates has produced and directed
Madama Butterfly several times, most recently in the Grand Opera House Belfast in 2012: 
www.lyricoperaproductions.com

 

© 2014


 

 

 

 

The Invader

by

George Fleeton

The initiative, the challenge and the risk of originating, promoting and producing a new opera in Ireland, while not entirely without precedent, requires nerves of steel in a climate presently most unfavourable to the arts in general and to opera in particular.

It’s chapeau and bravo then to Theatre Royal Productions Waterford for providing us with a valuable encounter with their intriguing production of The Invader (Wexford, May 30).

But was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it an opera?

No, it was a play with music, and it deserves, with some key adjustments, to seek and to find a broader, national audience than that provided by just three outings in the south-east towards the end of May.

Its inspirational genesis was a five movement choral work Come the Sails, devised for the visit of the Tall Ships to Waterford in 2011.

And, as was frequently the case exactly four hundred years ago in northern Italy, The Invader is based on a classical Greek theatre text, The Bacchae, a tragedy written by Euripides at the very end of his life.

The virus which invades the privacy of the modern, urban home of stoic Agatha, her arrogant son Rex and his sheltered daughter Mia, is Dion who has arrived from a parallel world to a forest nearby in order to wreak retribution on Rex who one time had refused to pay him proper tribute.

This could be Nosferatu, the unclean spirit, arriving looking for blood: It seemed a shape left the ship and melted into the forest.

The Rex-Mia relationship (somewhat ambiguous or perhaps just too intense?) recalls Rigoletto’s fatal over-protectiveness of his daughter Gilda: Let me set my feet inside the print of yours, as if we were one being sing Rex and his daughter in duet.

The two planes – the real world of the family and the spirit world of Dion and his seven bacchantic harpies – and the portal between them are caught, for all eight scenes, in a drab, living room set divided off from the forest by four tall French windows, and it simply doesn’t work, and so this brave musical drama begins to disintegrate before our eyes, as Rex – too abruptly falling into Dion’s trap: Don’t you want to see them first, dancing naked in the f0rest, baring all their charms? –is obliged to dress in the clothes he’ll wear to hell.

This indigestible endgame more than trivialises the robustness of what has gone before: it becomes a poor man’s pantomime, barely rescued from ridicule when Mia, who has slaughtered her father, as in a corrida, shape-shifts (not unlike Giselle or Rusalka) back to the real world asking: Why is my tongue torn, why is the grass soaked with blood? Where have I been and what have I done?

The four principals struggled gamely to make all this dramatically credible.

Yet the vivid, pared-down libretto did hold our attention (when we could hear the words properly enunciated and projected) and the relaxed conducting by Eric Sweeney of his own music did give the show lots of added value, as did the first class, well balanced Greek chorus of sopranos and mezzos.

This was music to savour, a distant cousin of the atonality which alienates many of us from contemporary operas, music which was finely shaped to reflect and to comment on the action, with leitmotifs which underpinned the forest v. city struggle for Mia’s soul and which were both signifying and acceptably contrasting.

However set and costume design and stage direction need radical revision so that they visually support, and don’t pull against, the excellent narrative thrusts of this well-conceived piece of musical theatre.

I happened to be re-reading Dennis Wheatley’s novel The Devil Rides Out (after a gap of 40 years) around the time I saw The Invader, and have been struck since by how useful the imagery in that book could be for re-imagining Mark Roper and Eric Sweeney’s first shot at opera.

© georgefleeton mmxiv


Broadway Best

by

George Fleeton

BROADWAY and West End musicals may be an acquired taste, with a distinguished history and a loyal following but, in the sense that they help to define show business today, they are unlikely to go out of fashion soon.

In our time their life blood is revivals, the same kind of music over and over again, at which the audience constantly revisits the familiar and where the majority of tickets are bought by tourists, mesmerised by spectacle.

These spectacles, which totally sublimate the raison d’être of theatre, now tour major venues, as circuses once did, smooth, over-hyped, bland, uber-professional entertainment.

*

At the amateur end of the musicals’ market however, passion is more palpable.

In Ireland, the Association of Irish Musical Societies boasts over 130 member groups spread across six well-defined regions.

One of the higher-profiled of these, the Rathmines & Rathgar Musical Society, has been in existence since 1913, and for its first show of its second century it offered a pot-pourri called Broadway Best (National Concert Hall Dublin, May 28), featuring well-anticipated selections of music by George Gershwin, Jerry Herman, John Kander-&-Fred Ebb and Stephen Sondheim.

This was a very curious event: the links between musical numbers were read at us by a compère from a script; there was no band – just two grand pianos, centre stage, conducted by the musical director who, for the most part, had his back to the soloists and the dancers; all the voices were over-miked, with a wallflower, secondary chorus up-stage and some unexpected up-beat arrangements of over-familiar numbers down-stage, indeed all over the place.

Of course we don’t expect Busby Berkeley levels of geometric production style in a show such as this, but it lacked a tight zip, and would have benefitted from a sharper musical focus and a shorter directorial rein.

I’ll concede that regular audiences for this fare know what to expect and that that expectation is catered for, unquestioningly, with little or no added value, and so it cosy and comfortable for aficionados,  but quite alienating for novices.

Late last year the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society produced a handsome coffee-table book If You Want to Know Who We are… (published by Gill & Macmillan) which recounts, in ineffable detail, the story of the continuity, competence and camaraderie which has helped to define and to sustain the R&R for 100 years.

www.randr.ie

© georgefleeton mmxiv

Future reviews here will include a new Irish opera, The Invader, and the fifth annual Lismore Music Festival.


La Bohème, Così fan Tutte,
La Cenerentola;
Nixon in China

by

George Fleeton

THE final three operas in the 8th season of the Met: Live in HD from New York were a well-sustained bag of delights - standard repertoire, lavish stagings: Puccini's La Bohème and Mozart's Così fan Tutte (each seen at IMC Dun Laoghaire, April 05 and 26 respectively) and Rossini's La Cenerentola (Droichead Arts Centre Drogheda, May 10).

La Bohème

I saw my first Bohème fifty-two years ago in the Opera-Comique Paris (Salle Favart) and the impression it left on me has been indelible.

You can imagine then the cautious approach I have taken to the many productions of this opera that I have seen and heard in the intervening years, including this revival of Zeffirelli's defining production from 1981.

What was unexpected was that the Met's matinee Mimì was sung that day, at 1.00pm, by Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who had sung her first Madama Butterfly there at 7.30pm the previous evening and, by her own admission, hadn't got to sleep until 5.00am, took the phone call at 7.30am and at once made her way to a run-through of Bohème with a tenor (Vittorio Grigolo) whom I believe she had never met before.

This came about because Romanian soprano Anita Hartig had taken ill during the night, and the show had to go on, and it was, as is usual in a revival of a Zeffirelli production, excellent.
 
La Bohème is one of the best trained old war horses of the operatic stage: a tiny hand is frozen, a sung waltz leads to a reconciliation and a cold garret accelerates the death of our consumptive heroine - and we get to see her last breath before her five bohemian companions notice that she is well and truly spirata.

Toscanini conducted its prima in Turin 118 years ago to an astonishly negative critical reception; it was Puccini's fourth opera, and it was something quite new in that it deflated the more grandiose traditions of Verdi; it was more sophisticated than Cavalleria or Pagliacci, with music that moved decisively from mood to mood and from melody to melody, all of it replete with immediate emotional messages that hit us dead centre between our ears (although after five decades I still squirm at the four-man horseplay at the start of Acts 1 and 4).

But the overarching tunefulness and atmospherics of this great opera were more than adequately embedded in our musical memory in this very fine production in which Opalais, fourteen hours after the curtain came down on her punishing performance as Cio-Cio-San, sang her way into Met Opera history.

In small but key parts Scottish baritone Donald Maxwell - who had sung a Recital which I had produced in Down Arts Centre Downpatrick last June - sang the thankless character-roles of Benoit and Alcindoro with his customary aplomb; and Susanna Phillips who sang Musetta made a memorable impression in her two very contrasting scenes.

Così fan Tutte

Three weeks later Phillips, proudly from Alabama, turned up in the much more robust role of Fiordiligi in Così, Mozart's third last opera (Vienna, 1790).

Conductor James Levine had been absent from the Metropolitan Opera podium for over two years with complex and recurring lower back problems, and he now rehearses and conducts from a motorised wheelchair.

His enthusiasm is undimmed, after 43 years leading the world’s busiest opera house.

This was so apparent in his very frank Così interval interview, in which he spoke passionately about his dual roles as director and conductor and how the integrity of the composer must be respected no matter what; and his critique of others for "too much self-indulgent nonsense" was very pointed and unapologetic.

"Opera", he said, "is at a peculiar place at the moment, perhaps it always is? We are trying to keep the Met thriving at a time when arts institutions are crashing and burning left and right".

Levine is an intelligent, idiomatic and inspiring teacher and communicator not given to the persiflage he notes in other opera entrepreneurs – and how refreshing that is in an age in which iconoclastic regietheater wants to take over our pleasure in this remarkable art form.

And this production of Così was a pleasure from start to finish, with two other first class singers in Isabel Leonard as Dorabella and scene-stealing Danielle de Niese as Despina.

And Levine helpfully identified for us subtle links between the music of Fiordiligi and Ferrando which in this production convincingly strengthened their evolving emotional liaison.

Characterisation all round was very sharp, but of the three possible outcomes to the Così narrative - two new couplings at the end? a reversion to the status quo? or the continuance of the illicit affair between Fiordiligi and Ferrando? - Levine opted for the second, and possibly least satisfactory one.

La Cenerentola

By the time he was 25, Rossini was at the keyboard for the opening night (Rome, 1817) of his new opera based on Perrault's fairy tale Cinderella.

Rossini invented Italian opera as we know it today; he brought discipline to it and an even greater abundance of tunes than Mozart; but by 1829 he had taken early retirement to Bologna where he lived quietly for nearly forty years, going steadily potty.

The plot of Cenerentola is also potty; it has too many longueurs, too many patter arias (today these would be scat/riff/rap) and three of the most iritating characters in all opera (Angelina's father and her step-sisters), but the good bits, like clots of thick whipped cream, always float to the top of the mix.

That was certainly the case in this Met production, dominated by the superb mezzo Joyce DiDonato (and her Prince, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez), in which Rossini's clear affection for the the adorable and compassionate character of Cinderella/Angelina is so self-evident.

DiDonato will sing a concert in Dublin on April 16 next:
www.nch.ie .

Meanwhile the 9th Met: Live in HD season (comprising twelve different operas and brought to us by Classical Arts Ireland) begins on October 11 with Verdi's Macbeth:

www.classicalartsireland.com

www.metopera.org

Nixon in China

It was back to earth with a bump after those three stimulating encounters with the best of Puccini, Mozart and Rossini (even if the Live-in-HD hostesses are a moveable feast and the back-stage interviews are fed on pure corn - lots of it).

The Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin hosted Wide Open Opera's production of John Adams' bulked-up, corn-fed first opera, from 1987, Nixon in China (May 11).

Technically this was the Vancouver Opera 2010 production of 'Nixon on Tour'; Wide Open Opera then supplied cast, chorus, dancers and orchestra, with ambition to burn and striking but frequently minimalist orchestral colours which largely failed to make the action on the stage dramatically credible or credibly dramatic: an unusual opera in which the libretto (by Alice Goodman) is more impressive than both the music and its cut-and-paste, two-dimensional characters - the only exception being American soprano Audrey Luna's breath-taking performance as Madame Mao.

Kathleen Kim had sung this role in the 2011 Metropolitan Opera production (my only previous encounter with the opera) but she didn't quite exhibit the powerhouse reading, the Queen of Night flair, which Luna gave it this year in Dublin.

There is no denying the historical importance of Nixon's visit to China, in early 1972, about which he remarked that 'there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation'.

But Adams' opera, as a piece of theatre, grasps so little of this, and the production resorts to some expansive but confusing, even fragmented, video projections and the obligatory amplification of the singers with a mix of microphones.

Choruses and dancers worked valiantly to restore the balance (full marks for sterling work by Killian Farrell and Jessica Kennedy respectively), with the Act 2 ballet The Red Detachment of Women more than ornamenting this eclectic narrative wrenched, and then redacted for us, from the recognisable modern world.

Pat Nixon (Claudia Boyle) and Henry Kissinger (John Molloy) seemed suitably ill-at-ease when caught up in the pantomime of the so -called Cultural Revolution, but each act improved on the preceding one, so that by Act 3 what this opera purported to be about was finally beginning to take shape, as all six principals reflected on what was happening around them ('News has a kind of mystery'/'How much of what we did was good'?) during that historic week in Peking.

www.wideopenopera.ie

We can also consider that question in another context: Adams' second opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is part of the Met Opera's 2014-5 Live-in-HD season and will be shown in selected Irish cinemas at 6.00pm on November 15.

(c) georgefleeton mmxiv


TOSCA for the Terr!f!ed

by

George Fleeton

The redacted text of the pre-performance Talk given at Lyric Opera's recent production of Tosca in the National Concert Hall Dublin (May 18)

DID G.B. Shaw really say of the play on which this opera is based that it was an 'old-fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker'?

And did he  not see, later, that it turned out to be a well-constructed musical drama, with an abundance of duets, flesh and blood characters and a relentless chain of happenings (although  it was still  not the 'drama of ideas' which he would have preferred)?

Much of the dramatic tension in this opera arises from Tosca's by-pure-chance involvement in a factional cause (Republicans v. Royalists) that means nothing to her and which turns her life upside down - permanently.

That historical background is immediately foregrounded for us by the escape of a political prisoner (Cesare Angelotti) and by the frightening shadow of his pursuer (Vitellio Scarpia), all of which is underlined in the opera's opening musical phrases.

This is Puccini's only major opera of action and evil-doing: as theatre it is more swiftly paced than Bohème or Butterfly; in theatre-time it covers the final sixteen hours or so of three lives; Puccini's   imagination is at its most vigorous and the music is full of uncharacteristic short, sharp motifs related to sub-plot and to character; this, Mr Shaw, is an opera without longueurs.

Floria Tosca, as character, is an actress~singer, an experienced woman of the theatre; but we immediately see that she is also temperamental, and suspicious of her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi.

He doesn't take her jealously too seriously, which only serves to make her more abrasive.

In her best moments, however, Tosca has poise, piety, and humour, she is sophisticated and vibrant - these qualities are in her connective tissue - but when the going gets tough  she is ultimately the vulnerable innocent abroad; so in no way is she related to Puccini's gallery of younger little-women-in-love: Manon, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, Lauretta, Liù; she belongs to his more mature, somewhat world-weary creations, such as Minnie, Magda, Giorgetta, Angelica, Turandot.

Tosca is given sweeping, sinewy music which partially brings out those contradictions in her character and disposition: one minute piously religious, next minute romantic woman with a love-nest in the country; one moment suspicious of her lover, next ardently passionate about him.

In Act 1, the three principals are introduced to us, one by one, the more so to impress them, and their inter-relations, on our attention.

The love scene here has structural echoes with the first act finales of both Bohème and Butterfly.

The Attavanti fan is used by Scarpia in precisely the same way that Iago uses Desdemona's handkerchief in Otello, as Scarpia, this sanctimonious stage villain, plays with Tosca's capricious jealousy, and wins.

Act 2, with its use of melodramatic pauses, is arguably the best in any Puccini opera: it is tense, remorseless, with several vicious turns of the screw; and the unpremeditated murder of Scarpia is macabre, with few lyrics, lots of mime, and not a little catharsis for the rest of us; and in Act 3 Scarpia still exercises his evil powers in a ghastly, ironic salute from the grave.

Tosca's realisation of Scarpia's grisly deception is Verdian in its execution, it cuts like a knife (listen for the trumpets at that point) and for a moment we are in the domain of Rodolfo's last, disconsolate cry.

In the final act the lovers' second big duet is possibly less effective than their first, because Puccini does let it drag a bit, but the march to the scaffold, and what follows - that is as good as it gets in classical Italian opera.

After the grimness of the early scenes in Act 2, in her big set-piece, lyrical lament, Vissi d'arte, Tosca recalls her life devoted to art, love and religious observance; she is near the end of her strength; and in those few expanded minutes in which emotion is heightened (a defining characteristic of all great opera) her past unfolds before her, her heart is broken, and six times she asks God why is He treating her so badly, and six times her God is silent.

In those expanded moments, the opera stops dead in its tracks, and we all take stock of the difficult journey we have undertaken with her, with no hint - if you are new to the opera - of the finality of the destination.

Tosca's illusion that she is in control is harrowing to behold, and the composer underscores this with some of the most dramatic music he ever wrote (and we recall the equally impossible dilemmas faced by Manon Lescaut, but especially Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica, and their sons).

Given all that, the Act 3 dawn tone-picture is as beautiful as it is unexpected: we hear but don't see a shepherd boy singing as he herds his flock along the bank of the Tiber to pasture, to the background of the ringing of the great church bells of Rome.

When Tosca arrives with her good news story, even more self-delusional than before, there is wonderful ambiguity (not developed beyond a couple of subliminal hints in the score) in Cavaradossi's reaction to the deal Tosca says she has done with Scarpia; in their final music together doesn't Cavaradossi find it hard to believe that such delicate hands did the murderous deed?

So this is an opera of happenings, not an opera of ideas.

And it has strengths and weaknesses: it is a triumph of pure theatre; Tosca is Puccini's most mature heroine; and we have her aria plus two sublime tenor arias, and lots of scene a due.

But like all great art, its strength is also informed by its dramatic weaknesses: a kaleidoscope of fast-moving situations, which preclude any sustained plot or character development; neither principal is present for the other's arias; and there are lots of special effects music (torture, murder, firing squad, suicide) and so real emotions are by and large skin deep.

Scarpia, for example, is defined, and makes his impact, more by the role he plays (the Vatican's corrupt and ruthless Chief of Police) than by the music he sings; and the impressive scenic spectacle of the Cardinal, the procession, the Te Deum and the benediction which closes Act 1 only serves as the backdrop for the scheming, irreverent, thinks-out-loud Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is the self-appointed hero of this narrative: he loves liberty, defies tyranny and is an ardent revolutionary.

In his Act 3 aria, his love-death liebestod, he is hero-in-extremis: in by far the opera's best arioso he bids farewell to love and to life; notice the contrasts between the two brief stanzas of this piece: firstly dolcissimo, he recites his words pensively against the orchestral melody; then con grande sentimento he takes over and accentuates that melody, makes it his own.

This is Puccini at his most poignant (Nessun dorma would be twenty-five years later) as his protagonist faces execution at dawn.

Nothing that Tosca can say or do when she arrives on site will dilute its impact on us.

Verdi, elder statesman of Italian opera, was very supportive of Puccini in this enterprise; realistic operas were in vogue in the 1890s; Sarah Bernhardt had created the role of Tosca on the stage, in her native Paris in 1887; years later (1905) she lost a leg to complications involving gangrene after a bad fall on her Tosca leap from the parapet.

Puccini in the meantime had seen her play the part in Florence (in 1895), but his opera took over three more years to complete; and then there was the bomb scare in Rome on opening night, perpetrated by a rival claque...

The first Tosca, in 1900, was Hariclea Darclée. Strikingly beautiful, great actress, decent singer, whose recordings (she died 75 years ago) we believe have all been lost.

Darclée was from Romania and we note how several other Romanian sopranos have excelled in this role: Virginia Zeani, Ileana Cotrubaş and Angela Gheorghiu.

Why then is Tosca such a good opera?

It has three dramatically effective but contrasting acts in a high octane dramma per musica which lasts less than two hours: there are no boring bits.

It is Puccini's most concentrated, full length opera (albeit an act or two short of grand operas such as   Aida or La Gioconda).

It observes the three classical unites of time, place and action.

It focuses almost exclusively on the fate of three credible characters: two protagonists, and one antagonist, Scarpia, who is also Puccini's first bass-baritone character - unsentimental, and immutably cruel.

It has loose historical undertones of Napoleon's invasion of Italy in 1800 and his decisive victory over its Austrian occupying forces, at the Battle of Marengo.

And Puccini's creativity and musical imagination is clearly fired up by the stimulation he took from devising such melodrama for the theatre.

 

The next Lyric Opera production is in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 11 at 8.00pm: it’s the first of a new Concert series, featuring music from the operas of Mozart: www.lyricoperaproductions.com

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Tosca – and its utterly compelling, unsentimental realism

by

George Fleeton

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the programme for Lyric Opera's recent production of Tosca in the National Concert Hall Dublin (May 17, 18 & 20)

IT is easy for us to overlook the contributions made to Puccini's operas La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly by Luigi Illica (1857-1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906).

Giacosa, poet and playwright, was one of Italy's outstanding literary figures in the 1890s, and he drafted the scenarios for these three operas, while Illica (a renowned playwright and librettist) put the texts into polished verse, with his instincts for the striking stage pictures for which these operas are so memorable (think of the historical detail in Tosca, and the local colours in  Bohème and Butterfly).

Together they devised the incidents or plot points in the narrative, and they also set out the prose dialogues or recitativi.

We could then say that all Puccini had to do was to write the music - in the case of Tosca music to underscore the politics, corruption, sadism, attempted rape, torture, deceit and execution-at-dawn which make this one of opera's most ferociously effective melodramas.

As Puccini is said to have later remarked 'Bohème was all poetry and no action, Tosca was all action and no poetry', but then, as we now know, these three men did have a fractious and discordant working relationship.

Tosca , which has no overture, grabs our attention without warning from its urgent opening bars and rushes on like a runaway train to its terrible destination - all three principals are dead - with only two pauses for breath along the way: the lame comedy of the sacristan, and the shepherd boy singing in a clearer, calmer, colder dawn than we had encountered in Bohème Act 3.

The whole piece, unlike anything else Puccini wrote, is a savage, unrelenting  attack on our emotions: Scarpia's hate-theme, for instance  (Act 1), or Tosca's prayer (Act 2) in which she asks God six times why is He treating her so awfully, or the ambiguity of Cavaradossi's reaction (Act 3) to her done-deal for a mock execution.

This is what memorable, bullet-proof theatre should be about and, when driven by the most vivid music of any of Puccini's twelve operas, we know we are participating in something very special.

We listen as he uses tags, labels to signpost the subtleties of subplot, new twists in the narrative, the Te Deum laudamus or the chorus of Roman church bells, and how these stay in the ear long after: we feel the message and its impact without (as we must do with Wagner's music) having to pause to decode it.

And so this dramatic writing is more advanced than the romantic poetry of Bohème; it is more integrated, thought through, rounded and complete.

Its economies of scale are impressive too: taken at the correct tempi, as scored, the first act should last 44 minutes, the second 40 and the third 28.

And when in Rome, by the way, all three locations are well worth a visit - the Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese (currently the French embassy) and the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Finally, apart from the second, improved version of Butterfly four years later - which aspires to but does not quite reach this parnassus of perfection in musical scoring - we can now see that Puccini, in his remaining, variable mish-mash of operas (Fanciulla, Rondine, Trittico and Turandot) had already, with his three Giacosa/Illica collaborations, shot his best bolts.

A good recording of Tosca is an investment which pays dividends.

But in my considered view Tebaldi, Scotto and Freni's offerings  are weak productions, especially when taken alongside those of Nilsson, Price and  Caballé  who just happen to be Swedish, American and  Spanish, in that order.

Callas was also an American by birth, and her recordings of Tosca, especially the 1953 set, still dominate the discerning market all these years after her death.

I believe these non-Italian sopranos each dug very deeply into this character and her music, and that their Italian counterparts skated across the surface: Tebaldi, Scotto and Freni each sang Tosca beautifully but this is top drawer theatrical mélodrame, not bel canto, and besides those three never were actors.

For this opera  requires the best singing-actress available to make it resonate, to balance the music and the drama, and she must lose herself in its intensity and then come out on stage and tell us, with conviction, what she discovered.

Callas did this and her 1953 recording, with di Stefano and Gobbi at La Scala (EMI Classics), drew a line in the sand which has remained unaltered since.

Nilsson (Decca, 1966) sings with awesome power, range and impact; and Caballé (Philips, 1976) is lyrical in Act 1, dramatic in Act 2 and unforgettable in Act 3.

But Leontyne Price's Tosca (Decca, 1962) is simply spectacular, throwing down recorded opera's only almighty challenge to Callas' near-impregnable edifice, whose building blocks had also included Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Aida and Medea.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Rosalind Plowright

by

George Fleeton

THIS song recital, with pianist Philip Mountford, is a long overdue début CD  (released May 6th) in what is the most competitive end of the light classical music market.

Bearing in mind that it emerges at this stage in Rosalind Plowright’s historic and acclaimed career as soprano (and latterly mezzo-soprano) working at the top of the operatic world for almost forty years, it cannot fail to draw significant attention and critical approval.

A recorded song recital (no audience, no feedback, just the loneliness of the long distance studio – extracting a maximum of effect from a minimum of means - where the voice and its personality have no hiding place) depends for its success on touching a multiplicity of nerve endings in the listener, not simply by the selection of material, but also through the contrasts, the arrangements, the suitability, checks and balances, strengths and even exploitable weaknesses of the voice performing.

In all those respects, as her voice arches impeccably across three centuries of robust music, in six languages, Plowright’s well-structured address is impressive, and her programme notes, with their light anecdotal touches, are invaluable and informative.

The twenty-six tracks cover ten composers, more or less chronologically.

The title piece is Dublin-born Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting of John Keats’ romantic ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci in which text, music and performance are so sensitively understated; here the ‘full beautiful lady in the meadows’ is as powerful and as enigmatic an image as Dvorak's Rusalka.

The standard bearers of European song are well represented (not Schubert nor Strauss, but Brahms, de Falla, Tchaikovsky, Weill and Britten – although not always what we might have anticipated), while the ‘newest’ piece (to my ear) was the Psalm-like 17th century Pietà, Signore, attributed to Alessandro Stradella, a prayer to a merciful God, grounded in a deep faith.

The lovers' dialogue in Brahms' Von ewiger Liebe with its steel and iron resolve, is particularly effective, and contrasts tellingly with the parochial plain-ness of any one (or all) of de Falla's seven shorts love songs.

The Tchaikovsky art songs seemed the most serious input to this recital, possibly because I hadn't previously known them, and so, listening to them again, they threw his vastly better known music, and indeed the personal pain in his life, in to very high relief indeed.

I am not a fan of Kurt Weill - it's a question of personal taste, admittedly compromised by fifty years of Italian and French opera, blues and jazz - but Plowright justifies his inclusion here and uses a selection of three Weill songs to 'perform' her voice more dramatically.

We have just survived the Benjamin Britten centenary fair and it still resonates in this recording; indeed The Sally Gardens was one of my party pieces ages ago.

All in all then this is accessible and eclectic music making, which avoids being either esoteric or exotic, and is altogether a finely themed and threaded construct.

Rosalind Plowright has only sung once in Ireland (in Janacek's opera Jenůfa exactly ten years ago, for Opera Ireland in the Gaiety Theatre) and we have been remiss in not ensuring she is a more frequent and welcome guest.

This recording, her new passport so to speak, should deservingly open many other doors to new audiences here and elsewhere.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Rosalind Plowright - Philip Mountford

Romeo Records

www.rosalindplowright.com


The Film Music of Patrick Doyle

by

George Fleeton

Patrick Doyle’s music for the films of Kenneth Branagh was featured in a Waterfront Hall concert (March 31) as part of the 14th Belfast Film Festival.

While Doyle was present on the night, Branagh (born in Belfast 53 years ago) was not, but he had sent an appropriate video message from Hollywood where he is concluding post-production work on his latest film Cinderella.

The Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir were conducted by James Shearman; actors Fiona Shaw and Michael Maloney provided some live narration for three Doyle/Branagh Shakespeare adaptions, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet and Henry V; and leader of the Ulster Orchestra, Hungarian Tamás Kocsis, played Doyle’s violin romance from As You Like It.

Given all this superb fire-power, why wasn’t this a night of music-making to remember?

Firstly Patrick Doyle talked too much tosh about being there, and his anecdotes on working with Branagh – in a poorly-conducted pre-concert talk – were toe-clenching to say the least.

Secondly, if a large drop screen could be lowered from the flies to catch Branagh’s message, why couldn’t we have seen some projected film clips to remind us of their collaborations, instead of the music in isolation?

Thirdly, the concert notes were inadequate in all respects, and the balance between orchestra and Maloney’s Hamlet and Henry V soliloquies was far from nuanced, rendering the solo voice overpowered, virtually inaudible.

These were distractions which blunted the impact of the proposed celebration of what sounded like pretty standard film scores; and the elephant in the room, of course, was Branagh’s 2006 English-language take on The Magic Flute – a very brave, failed enterprise – which of course did not require the involvement of Patrick Doyle, but how a few pieces of Mozart’s music that night in the Waterfront (say as occasional intermezzi) would have cheered us all up no end.

*

George Fleeton’s pre-performance Talk on Puccini’s opera Tosca (Rome, 1900) will be given in the National Concert Hall Dublin on May 18 at 6.30pm: see -

www.lyricoperaproductions.com  

and

www.nch.ie

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Marco Spada - Bolshoi Ballet

Aida - Ellen Kent

by

George Fleeton
 

Marco Spada

South Dakota-born David Hallberg is a principal dancer at the Boshoi Ballet.

On March 30 he danced the title role, Live in HD from Moscow, in Auber's little-known ballet, Marco Spada, directed, in a superb production, by Pierre Lacotte and conducted by Alexei Bogorad.

This was the last of six ballets in the fourth Bolshoi live-in-HD season, and I caught it in the IMC Screen Dublin.

Marco Spada  only exists in the Bolshoi's repertoire, having been created in Paris (1857), then forgotten until its revival in Rome (1981), where it was danced by Nureyev and directed by the current choreographer, set and costume designer, Lacotte.

It is scheduled for just four more performances in Moscow: May 14-17 inclusively.

Prefaced by an excellent if urgent introduction, in English and French, by Katerina Novikova, the pace and the evident integrity of this production was compelling, the dancing breathtaking and Hallberg outstanding.

Both ballerinas, as contrasting in their interpretation of character as a soprano and a mezzo in an opera, were exquisite: principal dancer Evgenia Obraztsova (as Angela, Spada’s daughter) and leading soloist Olga Smirnova (the Marchesa Sampietri).

It is a tradition in classical ballet to step out of character quite frequently to acknowledge applause, and the slow hand-clap – very prominent at the Bolshoi - is a high accolade, the non-verbal communication of respect and deference from the audience to the dancers, and for the magnificent sets and costumes. 

Between 1805 and 1869 Daniel Auber wrote well over forty operas, most of which opened at the Opéra-Comique Paris, but very few of them remain in repertoires today; his Manon Lescaut however surfaced in Wexford about twelve years ago.

One of his comic operas was Marco Spada (1852), and five years later it was set to music by Joseph Mazilier, then Master of the Paris Opera Ballet; today it counts as Auber's only ballet.
 
The current Bolshoi production, which opened last November, is only its third incarnation: to say that this was the best ballet I’ve seen in ten years is not an exaggeration - I have never seen Fonteyn, Ulánova, Markova, Grey or Farrell on stage, so I do appreciate now what I have been missing for decades.

Details of the 5th Bolshoi Live in HD season, which starts on October 26, will be available shortly:

www.bolshoi.ru

www.pathelive.com

www.classicalartsireland.com

www.screencinema.ie

Aida

I attended only the first two Acts  of Ellen Kent's  touring performance of Verdi's Aida in Dublin's National Concert Hall on March 29 (and decided to skip Nabucco there the following evening).

An explanation is owing.

Having been an ardent supporter of her Opera & Ballet International, since she first came to Belfast's Waterfront Hall about seventeen years ago, it pains me to say that stasis and fatigue now overwhelm these extensive and over-extended annual tours round Britain and Ireland.

For example, this Aida (involving the Chisinau National Opera and the Moldovan Philharmonic Orchestra ) began its journey in Eastbourne on September 28 and its final stop will be in Lowestoft on May 03: over six months on the road.

Factor in identical, punishing schedules-in-parallel for La Boheme and Nabucco, with the same roster of principals, same chorus and orchestra, same back-stage crew, and the ineluctable impression on the night is one of tiredness and lethargy on stage and in the pit.

Then, from September 26 next, a similar tour sets out, with Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto and La Traviata leapfrogging over one another until at least early December.

I believe these productions of the most popular old chestnuts in the book are always well attended, and Aida (on March 29) did not contradict that.

But there was no excitement in the orchestral playing, no robust activity on stage (mind you our full view of some inept and noisy scene changes, in Acts 1 and 2, should not have made up for that), and Korean Elena Dee (Aida) - a stalwart of these productions - and Zarui Vardanean (Amneris) sleptwalked their way through their early set pieces: no flesh, no blood.

Children and dancers were supplied by Stagecoach Theatre Arts and the Leinster School of Dance without being in any way embedded in to the performance.

In all, it looked and felt like an under-rehearsed concert platform presentation of static tableaux from that most enjoyable of Verdi's late masterpieces, which has 'uncompromisingly classical characters moving through history in a stately frolic but with hearts that beat, blood that is warm ... and passions as up to the minute as our own' (Denis Foreman, 1994). 

Ellen Kent knows how to find and to convey the art inherent in opera: she proved that twenty years ago. 

But this is opera as own-brand commodity: anonymous, innocuous, recycled.
 
Celeste Aida? Gloria all'Egitto? I'm afraid not.
O terra, addio? A more likely scenario.

Finally, I've been left very concerned that smaller, under-resourced opera companies, whose blood, sweat and tears are invested in frequently outstanding productions - in many of the town and city venues where Ellen Kent's operas are staged - are having what they achieve undermined, devalued even, by the grandstanding, all things to all men and women, touring circus called Opera & Ballet International.

www.ellenkent.com

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Shortcuts Bray Institute Arts Festival

by

George Fleeton

The inaugural BIFE Arts Festival - Bray Institute of Further Education (March 04-30) - was designed as a public forum to showcase the imagination and the talents of students graduating in the areas of media and the performing arts.

On March 26, in the Mermaid Arts Centre Bray, before a capacity audience of families and friends, Shortcuts celebrated the work of the film students.

As I had taught some of the theory units of that same Higher National Diploma course – BTEC TV & Film (Moving Image) - for several years in Belfast Metropolitan College, this was a welcome opportunity to appreciate what another college and its students had achieved on the threshold of their careers in those most competitive, pressurised, even cut-throat industries, namely international film and television production.

Shortcuts, an event which has been on the go in BIFE for ten years, was never intended to be reviewed in the Irish Times nor to be opened by Neil Jordan or John Boorman, and it is perhaps best summarised as creating the art by understanding the craft.

In my own teaching of world cinema over the last twenty years, my starting point has always been narrative and story-telling, as in: ‘every film sets out to tell a story; its cornerstones are plot and character: a good film is a good story well told; a great film is a great story well told.’

The selection of work presented as Shortcuts addressed some elements of that essential approach to film - as the tangible exteriorisation of the imagination - though not all equally successfully.

There were eight films billed on the programme (and four others for which no information was available on the night).

Of those eight, animation and documentary points de départ were significantly absent; I wonder if this was a question of college resources, or blind spots in the delivery of the course?

So we had basically eight short stories, of which those shot on exterior locations around Dublin/Co Wicklow were, to my mind, the most successful: Benjamin Barry’s You’ll not grow old in my dreams, Leigh Reilly’s Freaks, Joeseph Reid’s The Exterminator, Angela Curiello’s Secrets and Eamonn Curley’s Tank.

The other three essays were not without merit (Disturbance, Michael McGloughlin; Best Day Ever, Jimmy Clisby and Burgling, Tyler Grace) but by comparison they were literally ‘housebound’ and their directors will know that suspenseful black comedy is not just an acquired audience taste but a difficult sub-genre with which to score memorably (best example? Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960).

The impact of the other five fictions was therefore more telling, more persuasive.
Derivative and eclectic? – yes, they were.
Totally original? No, that’s no longer possible as, after all, aren’t there  only seven basic plots?

Christopher Booker worked for thirty-four years on his massive tome The Seven Basic Plots and I have been using it, as a core text in all my cinema and literature courses, since it was published in 2004 and, although it is sometimes full of holes as a thesis (Why we tell stories), it is still highly recommended.

www.bife.ie

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Nadene Fiorentini -
debut Recital

 

by

George Fleeton

 

There were three Irish competitors in the 2012 Dublin International Piano Competition (established in 1988 and held every three years): Máire Carroll, Benjamin Shaffrey and Nadene Fiorentini, the latter emerging as the highest placed of those three.

 

The competition that year was won by the young eastern Russian Nikolay Khozyainov (19 at the time) and I reviewed the recital he later offered us in Wexford

 

… a rather sterile affair, which overran … the playing was impeccable … but the atmosphere in the Opera House that morning was like a dead zone, missing the chemistry and the projection of charisma which no doubt this young man is working on …he could take a leaf or two out of the books of several pianists who have gone before him – Finghin Collins, Michael McHale or Nadene Fiorentini … ¹

 

Nadene’s reward for best placed Irish participant in 2012 was her National Concert Hall Dublin ‘Rising Star 2014’ debut Recital, in the main auditorium on March 20.

 

In a programme comprising B minor Sonatas by Haydn and Chopin, on either side of Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces, the risen star from Greencastle Co. Donegal, played a difficult programme, from memory, which encouraged us to think about what we were listening to, in music frequently rich in cascading volumes.

Her performance, so confidently understated, helped extrude some of the pomp and pretentiousness from classical music in recitals or concerts: she smiled radiantly at her audience, said nothing and allowed the music to speak for itself.

 

In just two years, during which  I heard two solo recitals she had given in Down Arts Centre Downpatrick, Fiorentini’s music-making has deepened qualitatively and has become more refined and assured both in interpretation and in execution.

 

Piano music by the likes of Haydn, Brahms and that outstanding proponent of melody, Frédéric Chopin, is one of the routes by which we can enjoy access to, and share in, some incredible corporate and collective imaginations.

Great pianists are the keys to that, our agents, so to speak, and on March 20 the impressions one took away from Nadene Fiorentini’s sensitive playing were sometimes of delicately spun silk, sometimes of translucent sculpture - solidity which allows the light to pass through - assets vital to her in a very competitive global market-place for classical piano soloists.

 

Her journey, on home turf, has started well.

Next is her Concerto debut with the National Symphony Orchestra, Colman Pearce conducting (again in NCH Dublin) at lunchtime on July 15: she plays Felix  Mendelssohn’s first piano Concerto which will be broadcast live by RTÉ Lyric FM, and the programme includes music by Mozart, Brahms and J. Strauss II.

 

www.dipc.ie

www.nch.ie

 

¹ www.downnews.co.uk/opera-in-ireland-state-of-play-part-2  (for full review).

 

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Werther – tout est fini

 

by

George Fleeton

 

 

 

Two months before her death (in September 1977) Maria Callas announced, to her biographer Stelios Galatopoulos, that she was going to record the role of Charlotte in Massenet’s opera Werther; Alfredo Kraus would sing the title role and Georges Prêtre was to conduct.

But worn out by indifferent health, drained of both her physical and mental energies by low blood pressure, she died soon after that interview, exactly eleven weeks before her 54th birthday.

 

I was reminded of that ‘what-might-have-been’ scenario, after watching a very good Met: Live in HD production of Werther, on March 15 in the Omniplex Lisburn.

 

German-born ténor-du-jour Jonas Kaufman, in his back-stage interview with Live-in-HD hostess Patricia Racette, described how he believed that young Werther’s obsessive-compulsive love disorder for Sophie was a psychological  sickness - a condition not at all understood before Freud – inflicted, in this particular narrative,  on a man whose acute sensitivities had no place in a society which didn’t want to know.

This take on the predicament of the central character was supremely well supported by Richard Eyre’s ‘cinematic’ direction which unearthed the realism, the verismo, of the piece and downplayed its usually- highlighted and less credible melodrama.

 

 

 

Goethe’s novel, one of the great works of European literature, which was the basis for this opera, had been published in 1774, and Massenet’s version was first seen in Vienna in 1892.

 

It was interesting to revisit Werther after several years, and to so do not long after the double bill of his shorter, lesser known works, Thérèse and La Navarraise,seen last October in Wexford. ¹

 

Kaufman can do no wrong at the moment and had again chosen well here.

His next big outing will be as the Chevalier des Grieux in Covent Garden’s brand new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut this summer.

 

Meanwhile, back at the Met, French mezzo Sophie Koch (Charlotte) virtually stole the show from Kaufman in a performance that mesmerised from start to finish, in what is one of the least complicated and chorus-free love triangles in all opera.

Koch completely dominated the soul-searing  drama of Act 3 (Acts 1 and 2 are little more than an extended introduction to inevitable tragedy) with an intensity reminiscent of Tosca, and her sister-scene, with soprano  Lisette Oropesa, was played and sung with absolute conviction.

 

This production did however come off the rails, straight into the buffers in Act 4, without absorbing the shock.

What possessed Eyre, and his set/costume designer Rob Howell, to abandon the nuanced theatre  of the earlier acts and to  go with a Sergio Leone-style finale which was just about redeemed by the enigma of the final ‘shot’ and the cut to black?

 

While this fine opera is not under-recorded, like many of the great French operas the best recording was the first, in this case 1931, with the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, conducted by Élie Cohen, and sung by tenor Georges Thill (this year is his 30th anniversary) and soprano Ninon Vallin, reissued by Naxos.

As this set may be difficult to acquire, a more recent recording (RCA Victor, 1999) is by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; it is musically excellent, as conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, but Mexican Ramón Vargas and Bulgarian Vesselina Kasarova do take the berlitz approach to the French language!

 

There remain three more top drawer Met: Live in HD transmissions this season - representing Puccini, Mozart and Rossini at their very best –

La Bohème on April 05, Così fan Tutte on April 26 and La Cenerentola on May 10.

(There will be a pocket-edition production of Cenerentola at Wexford in October).

The Metropolitan Opera has also announced its 2014-5 season of ten Live-in-HD operas, starting with Verdi’s Macbeth on October 11.

 

Full details:

www.classicalartsireland.com

www.metopera.org

www.wexfordopera.com

 

¹ www.downnews.co.uk/

62°-wexford-festival-opera-act-2

- for review of two other Massenet operas.
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War Horse

by

George Fleeton

 

The UK & Ireland tour of the National Theatre’s War Horse will reach the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Dublin later this month (March 26 to April 26).

On February 27 we sampled what to expect on stage when that production was broadcast live to selected cinema screens , and my two 12-year old guests and I caught it at Movies@Swords, just north of Dublin.

The phenomenon generally known as ‘Live in HD’, covering opera, ballet, theatre and concerts, has spread like wildfire across most cinema chains, and some independent houses, in Ireland, north and south.

For example, in parallel with live events screened by Movies@Swords and other venues, Classical Arts Ireland administers the MET Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Berlin Philharmonic - all Live in HD.

 

Interviewed on the stage of the National Theatre in London  by Emma Freud, during the interval of War Horse, on February 27, the author of the book on which it is based, children’s novelist Michael Morpurgo, found himself still somewhat at a loss to explain the

extraordinary response there has been to his story.

It started life as a novel in 1982.

The stage version was first seen in 2007.

That was followed by the BBC Radio 2 adaptation in 2008 and then Steven Spielberg’s film version in 2011.

 

What we gained in the theatre version (adapted by Nick Stafford) were the life size puppets of ‘Joey’, firstly as a foal, then fully grown, and of his battlefield companion ‘Topthorn’.

This was the work of the South African Handspring Puppet Company – impressively choreographed, beyond words, as a rare example in modern theatre of the deus ex machina, re-interpreted here from the classical theatre of ancient Greece. 

On stage too we also had some impressive narrative music by Adrian Sutton, including snatches of folk songs sung by Ben Murray, and a lighting design (by Paule Constable) which took us seamlessly, on an uncluttered stage, from young Albert’s rural Devon to the trenches of the Western Front - on both sides of no man’s land - and back.

While Albert’s family, the Narracotts, were only lightly sketched in to the plot, actress Josie Walker took every opportunity to impress as Albert’s mother courage, Rose, as did actor Ian Shaw playing the very conflicted German officer Müller.

 

What we lost on stage was the horse’s ‘first person’ account of the suffering, the machine guns and the tear gas on both sides of the Great War, but the kaleidoscopic approach taken by directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris (the ploughing, crossing the Channel, pulling ambulances and heavy guns) more than compensated for this, climaxing in Joey’s near-fatal entanglement in the barbed wire of no man’s land.

But what was also lost here was the breath-taking magic of a story written for children, now ramped up to address, not very convincingly, adult issues of war, its horrors and futility, and the aftermath of devastation and mistrust, the whole being significantly compromised by a dénouement which I felt lacked appropriate dramatic clout, and may have been so constructed as to keep young readers of the novel happy.

 

www.warhorseonstage.com

www.movies-at.ie

www.classicalartsireland.com

 

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Macbeth – l’opera senza amore

by

George Fleeton

Verdi was absent from NI Opera’s production of Macbeth (Grand Opera House Belfast, February 21), probably because the composer’s vision and imagination were pointedly excluded from the proceedings.

Given that this was a first co-production with Welsh National Opera, the blame for the shambles we saw and heard on opening night cannot be entirely NI Opera’s responsibility.

But where were the ‘highly charged set-pieces, daringly vertiginous vocal writing and breathtakingly intense characterisations’ which Verdi built into this opera and which were promised in this production?

If NI Opera’s mission statement is ‘to challenge perceptions about what opera is and what it can be’ that’s fine, but mocking the art form is not acceptable.

I’ve been going to operas for over 50 years; I taught the subject for 20, developed the annual Opera Fringe Festival for 8, and have been reviewing and broadcasting about opera for 10 years.

Some of the audience leaving the building at the interval, on February 21, included former students of mine.

We all know the arguments for presenting European opera in good English translation (in the case of this Macbeth, that of Jeremy Sams), although I admit that I have never accepted the case for it.

While we may well have moved beyond the mediaeval church’s outrage at the translation of the scriptures into the vernacular, in opera – the public reception of which has been measurably revitalised by surtitles - music-lyrics-plot-character are so integrated in the original that even the best English translation only scratches the surface of the melodrama, and so the spell is broken, the sonic impact of the original language is nowhere to be heard and the partnership (which becomes a mismatch) between the music and the English translation is damaged and thrown into very high relief.

This renders the opera-in-English exercise largely pointless, confirmed by a few people who said to me, on the night, that it was as difficult to hear what was being sung in English as it would have been in Italian.

That however is one of the least concerns I have about this production.

There were many positives.

The choruses were first class throughout, very well prepared, and all the secondary characters were well cast and sang well too: not for the first time have we seen bass-baritone John Molloy (a dignified Banquo) almost single-handedly save a production from a death worse than fate, well supported in this case by mezzo Doreen Curran (Lady-in-waiting).

The problem was with the two principals, Bruno Caproni (Macbeth) and Rachel Nicholls (Lady Macbeth) and that is serious.

Now an ability to act the role is not a prerequisite in much opera-in-performance, but it most certainly helps, and for a historical tragic-drama of this eminence, the raw skills of theatre must be in evidence for dramatic conviction, if not catharsis.

They weren’t.

Was the production under-rehearsed?

Had these two keynote singers each been left to their own devices?

Others better informed than me should supply the answers.

In the case of both singers, there was no discernible rapport one with the other, no extension beyond their comfort zones of mid-register; cues were consistently (and distractingly) being taken from the conductor, and the superb high drama of numbers such as Lady Macbeth’s letter aria ‘Vieni! t’affreta’, the more poetic sunset song ‘La luce langue’ and her sleepingwalking/mad scene ‘Una macchia e qui tuttora’ just died in front of us.

Caproni (ridiculously costumed – as were most of the cast) clearly struggled with this role – as he had in Opera Ireland’s production in Dublin a few years back – and again conveyed the impression that he was surprised and confused to be there at all.

In terms of the director’s take on all this –that is, Shakespeare’s conjugal dictatorship narrative set to music - I felt that Imelda Marcos (and her hundreds of pairs of shoes) or, even better, Madame Mao (Jiang Qing from Nixon in China) had finally met up with Kim Jong-un from North Korea, the uncle-murderer (who still hasn’t had an opera written about his dysfunctional family).

They would have been totally at home in the Macbeth set, and its irrational, all-over-the-place lighting, which resembled at worst an abandoned public wash house , with severed heads and Duncan’s paramilitary funeral wreaths all neatly plastic-bagged (although the dismemberment of toy baby dolls, for the witches’ disgusting brew-up in Act 3, was in very poor taste indeed).

However I suspect that set, costumes and props were all part of the Welsh National Opera end of the package, and that lets NI Opera a little further off the hook.

The chorus of Scottish exiles (Act 4, with its wall of photos of ‘The Disappeared’) reinforced the excellence of the choral singing - and its choreography, movement director Anna Morrissey exuding conviction - and, at that moment, Verdi’s spectre just may have passed through the theatre, only to drop his head and lament the inadequacies of this trivialised attack on his tenth opera.

This Macbeth won’t have improved much on the second night (February 22) but alternate principals Paul Carey Jones and Miriam Murphy may just possibly have sung it better.

In either case, this is an opera for the best actor-singers available; the plot must race along clearly and decisively, supported by music that is on the go all the time; Macbeth’s brutality and cowardice must take precedence over his inner turmoil, and since this is essentially Lady Macbeth’s melodrama – less a person, more pure embodiment of white-hot ambition – her character, so perfectly captured in her music, must peak shatteringly in her sleepwalking scene - or else …

For the final, matinée performance, on February 23 (again with Caproni and Nicholls), I was told that several hundred students/under-18s were expected for this, their first opera.

I really do hope that the experience will go a long way to enhancing their study of Shakespeare’s text.

Finally, all is not lost, for there are some really great recordings of Verdi’s Macbeth available out there in CD-land.

The pick of these is without question the live, opening night recording from La Scala (December 07, 1952) with Maria Callas, conducted by Victor de Sabata (EMI Classics), in a performance recently described as bringing ‘almost supernatural tension to Lady Macbeth’s disintegration’, and which ‘comes close to dramatic perfection’.

This was Callas’ official début at La Scala, and she sang it just five times there in December 1952 and never reprised the role again.

It is said she fitted Verdi’s concept like no other soprano since: ‘I would like Lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil … her voice harsh, hollow, stifled … some passages must not even be sung, but acted and declaimed with a veiled, dark voice … in fact the voice of the very devil’.

The best film adaptation of Macbeth by far is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) with the extraordinary Yamada Isuzu as Lady Macbeth.

http://www.niopera.com/

(c) mmxiv.
 



 

Sands Family Folk
by

George Fleeton

© mmxiii

La Traviata alla Scala  
by

George Fleeton
© mmxiii

 

Firstly, best operas of 2013, in my book :

Lyric Opera Productions’ The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata and Rusalka, all three in Dublin.

Best theatre:

Macbeth, Lyric Theatre, The Plough and the Stars, Abbey Theatre and Female Gothic, Dyad Productions/Down Arts Centre.

Best classical music:
Messa da Requiem, Ulster Orchestra/Waterfront Hall, Endellion String Quartet, Portaferry Proms  and Lismore Music Festival, Co. Waterford.

Best ballets:

Nutcracker, Bolshoi/Queen’s Film Theatre, The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet/Grand Opera House and Giselle, Birmingham Royal Ballet/Grand Opera House.

Best films:

Vertigo, Newcastle Community Cinema, The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, Ulster Hall/Mulholland Grand Organ and The Searchers, Queen’s Film Theatre - all three of them self-evident classics revisited. 

Best live music:

The Mary Ryan Blues Trio and The Brigid O’Neill Trio, both Down Arts Centre, and Spirit of the Wildflowers, the Saint Patrick Centre.

 

In sum, it was one of the best years in the decade or so during which I have been reviewing such art&culture-in-performance events.

 


La Traviata

The opening night of each new season at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala always takes place on December 07, irrespective of which day of the week that date falls.

La Scala is very widely regarded, especially by Italians, as the most important opera house in the world.

So opening night is one of the biggest social events in all Italy.
Top-price tickets cost about 2,000 Euro, and a city ordinance requires
every performance to finish before midnight.
The opera house itself has had two discrete incarnations: firstly from 1778 until 2001, when it was closed for nearly three years for very radical renovations.
It had opened in Mozart's time, 235 years ago, with an opera by Salieri; the new La Scala reopened with that same Salieri opera in 2004.

I’ve been there a few times since then, but am convinced that the ghosts of the old La Scala, which I first visited in 1969, have fled for good.

It is just too tangibly squeaky clean, like Covent Garden has been since 1999, and just as I remember the New York Met on a first visit there in 1971, about five years after it opened at the Lincoln Center.

 
At La Scala the new season opened this month, December 2013, with Verdi’s La Traviata, an opera which I have seen over thirty times in different productions and about which  I   have   written extensively before.

This new production was loudly and unambiguously booed, at the curtain on opening night, by les enfants du paradis in the loggione.

No matter how loudly the toffs applauded, from their boxes and on the parterre, the discomfort felt by the Russian director/designer, Tcherniakov, was palpable.

Then the Polish tenor, who sang Alfredo – Piotr Beczala – equally uncomfortable-looking throughout the three acts, while just politely  applauded, announced later that evening that he would never sing in Italy again (once his contract for this production expires, on
January 03,  that is - we’ll see).

In more general terms, this production was so uneven in so many respects that my list of misgivings takes up more space than the positives discernible on the night. Few problems with Daniele Gatti, the conductor – he literally and figuratively knows the score.

No problems, neither with the power-house Verdian chorus, nor with any of the several smaller roles.

And German soprano Diana Damrau is an outstanding artiste; this production finds her in the middle of a schedule of many performances as Violetta in several opera houses, worldwide, this year and next.

She is a distractingly Meryl Streep look-alike, who laboured - in the production under review – dressed in the most unflattering costumes of the entire cast.

At one point, late in the second act, she whipped off her ridiculous Shirley-Temple-wig to reveal how carefully her natural hair had been pinned up.

Her voice and how she addressed, even attacked, Verdi’s profound and affective music – which dominates the opera – sounded impeccable to my ear.
Her confidante Annina, sung by Mara Zampieri, a Verdi specialist, was present in every scene, our on-stage representative, a silent witness to the deterioration and pathos of this lonely courtesan Violetta whom Verdi described as ‘the woman who strayed’.

As Alfredo’s father, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić was very convincing, particularly in his long, would-be father-daughter’ scene with a distraught Violetta in Act 2, where he was refreshingly free of the top-hat, cane and frock-coat in which his character is traditionally dressed.

Last word then - if La Scala insists it is still the world’s most prestigious opera house, it is sad to report that this current production of La Traviata is unworthy of it.

In Verdi’s own city, in his bicentenary year, in the house most associated with his operas between 1839 and 1893, close to the Grand Hotel et de Milan in which he died in 1901 and not far from his Casa di Riposo where he is buried, one would have expected a more respectful and dignified production than this.

 

www.teatroallascala.org

 

My thanks to Movies@Swords for enabling me to see this opera, at very short notice, in their live-in-HD relay, direct from La Scala on opening night.

 

www.movies-at.ie


 



FISCA: The Flax Trust

Inter-Community School Choirs Award

by

George Fleeton

© mmxiii
This inaugural Christmas Gala Competition was held in Belfast City Hall on December 05, and involved a sing-off between four primary and four post-primary schools from north Belfast.

Produced under the auspices of the Flax Trust, and Belfast City Council, the Artistic Director was Belfast-born soprano Marcella Walsh.
The Adjudicators were pianist Una Hunt, soprano Giselle Allen and George Fleeton.

 

Three prizes were awarded at the end of an evening which resonated with imagination, energy and inspirational music making, in the presence of a capacity audience.

The Tom Foley Cup for the most promising junior choir was awarded to the Holy Family and Currie Primary Schools, who also shared a Flax Trust bursary of £1,000.

The Sir George Quigley Cup for most accomplished senior choir was awarded to Mercy College and Boys’ Model School, and they too shared a bursary of £1,000 presented by the Flax Trust.

The winners of the prestigious George Mitchell Cup for most captivating performance in the competition - with a bursary of £3,000 - went to Dominican College Fortwilliam and Belfast High School for their rendition of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus, and the Christmas carol O Holy Night.

All in all this was a most enterprising peace through music initiative, a musical project aimed at reconciliation through the art of music which, given its enthusiastic reception on the night, must have a secure future.  


Further details at

www.fiscaward.com

www.flaxtrust.com