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Das Rheingold at London's Royal Opera House

25 September 2012, London, UK

Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda
Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda

Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific
Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific(Photography by Clive Barda)

Review by James Waygood

For all the naked Rhinedaughters and skinless abominations that he has thrown at Das Rheingold, Keith Warner’s acclaimed production still fails to lift this opera beyond being the weakest and most unimpressive of Wagner's Ring cycle. Yet with as strong a cast as the Royal Opera House has put behind it there are still moments that thrill, making this a reasonable evening, if not wholly satisfying.

Though the set, lighting, and video/projection work are visually arresting, one of the issues with the production is Warner's overly cluttered approach. Dormant singers will often fidget and pace in the background, distracting from an opera that is already struggling to hold your attention. Testament to this is just how well the more static moments work, such as Wotan’s goading of the defeated Alberich, and Erda’s doom-mongering prophecy. These are so expertly delivered by the cast that they render the ambitious staging redundant.

What really doesn’t chime are the production’s attempts at overt horror. Alberich’s transformation into a fearsome dragon, despite grotesque and gothic, was executed with laughable and clunky puppetry, and Fasolt’s murder was like a badly cooked steak – overdone and with nowhere near enough blood to achieve the shock factor that the production was aiming for.

Yet Antonio Pappano conducts with a measured lightness, making the orchestra noticed only when needed and leaving the cast to make the most of their parts. Indeed, they are the production’s saviours. Stig Andersen's Loge is delightfully cynical, sly, and sarcastic, and Maria Radner purrs and spits her aria as Erda to spine-tingling effect in a near show-stopping cameo. As for Bryn Terfel, it’s only when Wotan casts off the shackles of being the demagogue’s sidekick that he turns to dominating the stage with an unstoppable power, stunningly nuanced in his exploration of Wotan’s complex pathos.

Ultimately it’s an overburdened production of a fair opera with only its singers stopping it from being dreary. Given the performances here it sets the scene for what should be a much more enjoyable continuation of the cycle. Undoubtedly Terfel will yet again make his mark in one of opera’s most coveted baritone roles, accompanied by a supporting cast that are just as adept as the superstar himself.

A full review of Covent Garden's Ring cycle will be published in our December issue.


Egyptian soprano wins Leyla Gencer Voice Competition

24 September 2012, Istanbul, Turkey

Fatma Said with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under Pietro Mianiti
Fatma Said with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under Pietro Mianiti

Report by Neil Jones

The 7th Leyla Gencer Voice Competition has been won after an inspired performance of ‘Je marche sur tous el chemins ... Obéissions, quand leur voix appelle’ from Manon by the 21-year-old Egyptian soprano, Fatma Said.

Said is currently a student at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin and her polished technique, spirited interpretation and simply gorgeous voice not only won her first prize but also the Doğuş Audience Prize.

Ludmilla Bauerfeldt (soprano, Brazil) came second and Jessica Rose Cambio (soprano, Italy-USA) came third, whilst the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala Special Prize of a three-month scholarship at the Academia was won by Irina Ioana Baiant (soprano, Romania).

The finals and award ceremony took place at the Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday, 20 September and the nine finalists were accompanied by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Pietro Mianiti.

The Italian soprano, Mirella Freni, was head of the panel of judges which included the chief director of the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, Yekta Kara.

Over 170 singers auditioned for the Competition, with 40 being selected to compete in the quarter and semi-finals in Istanbul.

'Bawdy' Arnold opera to receive belated world premiere

30 August 2012, Northampton, UK

Malcolm Arnold in 1958
Malcolm Arnold in 1958

A comic opera by the British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold is to receive its world premiere in his hometown of Northampton during this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival.

A satire on 17th-century manners inspired by William Wycherley’s Restoration play The Dancing Master, Arnold’s libretto started life as a film script by his friend Joe Mendoza. They went on to create the 75-minute score together in 1951, shortly after the success of Arnold’s orchestral suite English Dances.

‘When the pair took the work to the BBC, it was turned down as being too bawdy for family audiences,’ explains Malcolm Arnold Festival director, Paul Harris. ‘They then took it to Granada where Malcolm performed it on the piano as well as singing all the parts. Granada turned it down for not being serious enough.’

The semi-staged world premiere of The Dancing Master will take place in Northampton on 20 October, including an introductory talk by Royal Academy of Music lecturer, Dr Timothy Bowers.

Royal Opera's contemporary arm to close

20 August 2012, London, UK

London's Royal Opera House
London's Royal Opera House

London’s Royal Opera House has announced that it is closing its contemporary and commissioning arm, ROH2, which has developed new programming strands for the ROH’s black-box Linbury Theatre, the Clore Studio and the Paul Hamlyn Hall.

The decision has been precipitated by the departure of Deborah Bull, ROH2’s creative director and Alison Duthie, its head of programming, both of whom are now working with King’s Cultural Partners at King’s College, London. The move has also resulted in two redundancies from ROH2’s eight-strong team, including head of development, John Lloyd-Davies.

ROH2 has struggled to find an artistic identity of its own since it was established in 2001. Although it has developed small-scale, experimental work through partnerships with organisations such as the Genesis Foundation, it has tended to act as a receiving house for the UK’s leading contemporary opera touring companies such as Music Theatre Wales and the Opera Group.

With the appointment of a new, artistically experienced management team at the Royal Opera and Ballet, it was felt that ROH2’s remit should be integrated into programming and development at the Royal Opera House itself.

The ROH’s new director of opera, Kasper Holten (formerly boss of the Royal Danish Opera), will lead the team responsible for commissioning and developing opera and music in the alternative spaces, working with John Fulljames (former director of the Opera Group).  Ballet and dance will be overseen by the new director of ballet, Kevin O’Hare.

In spite of a 15 per cent cut in its annual grant, the ROH has insisted that the decision to axe ROH2 is not financially motivated.  The company issued a statement saying, ‘The reorganisation does not effect Royal Opera House’s commitment to commissioning innovative and challenging new work and collaborating with other creative organisations.’


Festival Focus – Opera Saratoga, US

6 August 2012, Saratoga Springs, US

Alexander Orthwein steps up to bat as The Mighty Casey
Alexander Orthwein steps up to bat as The Mighty Casey

Joshua Kohl holding court as the Duke of Mantua in 'Rigoletto'
Joshua Kohl holding court as the Duke of Mantua in 'Rigoletto'(Photos courtesy of Opera Saratoga)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Opera Saratoga has been known as Lake George Opera for the past half a century, but recently changed its name to reflect the company’s relocation to Saratoga Springs, where it has been based since 1998. Alongside this rebranding, the company acquired a new staff, board, and a third opera in its schedule, having been forced by financial constraints to cut its offering to two over the past few seasons. Curtis Tucker, once again at the helm, metamorphosed the company into a 10-day festival format, with overarching themes, obscure works and director-driven-concept productions.
This season’s theme was versatility. Tucker wanted to show the company’s three performance categories:19th century masterpieces, with Rigoletto; comic works, with a double bill of Offenbach’s obscure Le 66 and the one act satire on Britain’s legal system by Gilbert & Sullivan, Trial by Jury; and rarely performed contemporary American classics, with Schuman’s 1953 opera The Mighty Casey, which deals with America’s favorite pastime – baseball.

Mighty Casey was also the festival’s highlight. Based on Lawrence Thayer’s 1888-poem 'Casey at the Bat', it is a portrait of small-town America (Mudville) in 1917: an entertaining work with a serious undertone dealing with the downfall of Mudville’s hero Casey, who when his moment of greatness fades (he loses the championship game by striking out) finds redemption through love. The opera was musically stimulating and visually exciting. Only director Helene Binder’s insertion of a mini-vaudeville show (1917 was the heyday of vaudeville) at the start of Act II almost ruined the work by interrupting the action, breaking the story’s thread and detracting from Schuman’s glorious music. Set against a backdrop of the team’s hometown Main Street and its ball park, complete with dugout and stands, the opera was narrated by The Watchman (Mark Womack in a matter-of-fact manner), which  included Thayer’s entire poem, of which the last stanzas were set to a funereal chromatic chorale, sung by the spectators/townspeople at the game. 

The music, slightly dissonant, sounded like a fusion of Copland and Bernstein. It was rhythmical with heavy brass and percussion, and reflected the mood and emotions of the story, by turns lively and melodic, peaceful and neo-romantic, and mournful. The orchestra played a major role in driving the work, because there were long stretches with no singing or spoken dialogue. The music, building in parallel triads, ended where it began, so there were no climatic moments à la Verdi, but it was engrossing nevertheless. A range of character motifs clearly delineated the different characters, but caused the dialogue to suffer through the frequent repetition of phrases, harking back to Baroque era traditions.

Ironically, Alexander Orthwein in the title role (Casey) neither sang nor spoke, but did a great pantomime of Mudville’s last hope for a championship. The singing cast, a mixture of apprentice and studio artists, assayed their roles with aplomb. Tucker admirably conducted from the ‘skypit’ (it is always on top of the set since the theatre has no orchestra pit) capturing the nuances and details of the music.

Director Chuck Hudson’s updated Rigoletto to contemporary Italy, although it could stand for any country where male politicians amuse themselves by paying for sex then denigrating and abusing the women. The Duke of Mantua, transformed into an egocentric, womanizing politician, was modelled after Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose alleged sexual orgies were legendary. The Duke’s court was metamorphosed into a bordello with explicit sexual acts and excessive violence against scantily-attired women. Although it took an act for Joshua Kohl to warm up, it was worth the wait. His voice, deliciously lyrical and emotionally nuanced, offered a beautiful timbre, if occasionally forced. Guido Lebron assayed Rigoletto with a powerful, booming voice that was blunt, a reflection of his character. Marie-Eva Munger was a standout, imbuing Gilda with a golden-hued sound, beautifully melodic, and finely nuanced with a touch of vibrato and thrilling high notes. Maestro Jim Caraher kept the performance tight.

The double bill of Le 66 (Number 66) and Trial by Jury were fluff pieces – light, silly and fun.  Le 66 involved a young couple’s journey through the Alps, where they met a salesman, and explored the humorous consequences of holding a lottery ticket upside down. (‘Le 66’ refers to the number of the winning lottery ticket.)

The overarching theme for next year’s Opera Saratoga festival season will be operas inspired by Shakespeare.


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