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Penderecki’s Ubu Rex at Opera Bałtycka

28 April 2014, Gdansk, Poland

Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka
Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka(Photo: Sebastian Ćwikła)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

This grim comedy of murder, greed, betrayal and lust for power by the lowest rung of social order is a political allegory played out as the Theater of the Absurd. Based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the uncanny prophecy of the evil perpetrated by Europe’s 20th-century dictators, whose plot was inspired by Macbeth, Ubu Rex parodies theatrical masterpieces and mocks the musical language of classical opera and avant-garde music.

Pere Ubu, the grotesque protagonist, at the instigation of his wife, Mere Ubu, has killed the king of an imaginary Poland and usurped the throne. He murdered the nobility and stole their property, slaughtering the bankers so as to collect and keep the taxes for himself. The people rose against him and Ubu escaped. In this work which satirises the artistic and cultural ideals of both past and present, director Janusz Wiśniewski filled the stage with caricatures. Opening and closing the opera was a chorus of misfits, some from the Addams Family (Mere appeared as Morticia), others with debilitating diseases and the walking dead. Ubu was a hunchback in a court jester outfit à la Rigoletto, wearing a tall rounded cone. His ‘friends’ were a dandy, a Moor, two transvestites, a noblewoman and a soldier in battle dress. A crude, mischievous midget couple followed him. The stage was reduced to a claustrophobic room, the sparse set consisting of a large table covered with white tablecloth and a number of wooden-slat chairs, rearranged to designate different locations. Two armoires topped with suitcases flanked either side, with escape routes through their doors.

Penderecki’s music juxtaposes tonal and atonal among its contrapuntal outbursts, fusing diverse, animated sounds and screeches with smatterings of jazz and pop, military fanfares, repetitive mantras, and direct and indirect musical quotations ranging from Bach, Mozart and Rossini to Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky, including the famous Clock Scene from Boris Godunov. Rossini arias are particularly mocked, sounding more like musical hiccups than bel canto. Ubu Rex is a quintessential pasticcio.

The large cast, especially Karolina Sikora and Jacek Laszczkowski as Mere and Pere Ubu, executed their roles with aplomb, and maestro Wojciech Michniewski deserves praise for his precise execution of this musically complex work. But it was the director, Wiśniewski, who offered the ultimate political commentary: it’s the ‘little people’ both literally and figuratively who rule the world, as the midget couple claimed the throne usurped by Pere and Mere Ubu.

London hosts awards for opera

13 April 2014, London, UK

Stuart Skelton, winner of the International Opera Award for Male Singer
Stuart Skelton, winner of the International Opera Award for Male Singer(Photo: Jim Winslet)

The second annual International Opera Awards took place at a glittering ceremony in London on 7 April. A total of 21 Awards were announced, including Female Singer Diana Damrau and Male Singer Stuart Skelton, while the Opera Company Award went to Oper Zürich. The late impresario Gerard Mortier was also remembered with a special Lifetime Achievement Award. An auction raised funds for the Opera Awards Foundation, which supports training for young singers.

The Olivier Awards includes two awards for opera. This year’s winners were Les vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera House, named Best New Opera Production, and English Touring Opera, awarded Outstanding Achievement in Opera for its brave and challenging touring productions at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House.

Opera also put in a strong showing at this year’s BBC Music Awards. The Opera category went to Signum Classics for their recording of Grimes on the Beach at last summer’s Aldeburgh Festival. George Benjamin’s Written On Skin continued to garner accolades with the Premiere Award, while the Royal Opera House production of Tosca topped the DVD (Performance) category. Jonas Kaufmann’s disc of Wagner arias for Decca won the Vocal Award.

Gounod's Faust at Covent Garden

7 April 2014, London, UK

Sonya Yoncheva as Marguerite with Joseph Calleja as Faust
Sonya Yoncheva as Marguerite with Joseph Calleja as Faust(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Starrily-cast and much anticipated, this revival of David McVicar’s production was dealt a blow with the cancellation of Anna Netrebko, who decided that Marguerite wasn’t for her. How wonderful that her replacement, Sonya Yoncheva, scored a massive success in the role.  She flooded the house with radiant sound, and had just enough lung power left to sustain the line in the final trio, taken briskly by conductor Maurizio Benini.  Yoncheva was duly rewarded with a tumultuous ovation. 

Bryn Terfel’s Méphistophélès is a scene stealer, but despite some clever effects it is clear that his magnificent voice has perhaps become rather blustery for the part. As Faust, Joseph Calleja gave lots of voice, generally very beautiful, but didn’t do much with it apart from a stunning diminuendo on his top C in the Act III aria.  Simon Keenlyside’s Valentin was a display of healthy vocalism and little subtlety, but Renata Pokupić restored the balance with an elegant Siébel. 

The production remains spectacular, holding an unflattering mirror to Gounod’s Paris, yet at the same time it is somewhat alienating, fizzing and popping with energy and en route losing the audience’s engagement with Marguerite’s fate.  Benini’s conducting has a large-scale confidence that matches the onstage histrionics.

Gounod's Faust runs at Covent Garden until 25 April 2014

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment at Covent Garden

11 March 2014, London, UK

Patrizia Ciofi as Marie
Patrizia Ciofi as Marie(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Patrizia Ciofi has inherited the role of Marie at Covent Garden from Natalie Dessay and I must admit I prefer the relative newcomer (she sang it here in 2012).  Her voice is up to the considerable vocal demands and her interpretation just as funny but less knowing.  Her tone spreads slightly at the top but to be fair she has literally been a trooper and sung despite an infection. Her acting is exceptional – not many singers would dare to mime for two minutes whilst peeling potatoes and still get the house to laugh.

Juan Diego Flórez sings his umpteenth Tonio – not a complaint as he’s on stunning top form. (Debutant Frédéric Antoun takes over – one to watch.) Pietro Spagnoli is a stylish Sulpice and Ewa Podleś is great fun as the Marquise, putting many a baritone to shame: is it too much to ask that the house casts her in something serious and doesn't treat her like a pantomime dame.

Talking of dames, you get Kiri Te Kanawa as the Duchesse, with the bonus of an aria from Puccini’s Edgar revealing some sweetly floated top notes.  Yves Abel conducts with verve and charm and Christian Räth revives Laurent Pelly’s production with a fresh touch.

La Fille du regiment runs at Covent Garden until 18 March.

Controversial opera impresario Gerard Mortier dies of cancer

10 March 2014, Brussels, Belgium

Gerard Mortier in 2013
Gerard Mortier in 2013(Photo: Javier del Real / Teatro Real)

Gerard Mortier, one of the great opera managers and impresarios of recent times, died of cancer last Saturday at his home in Brussels, aged 70.

Mortier was a charismatic and controversial figure throughout his career, described by his colleagues variously as a visionary, an iconoclast, a dictator and a shameless self-publicist. He held several prominent posts in the opera world, starting in 1981 when he was appointed general manager of La Monnaie Theatre in Brussels, transforming a parochial opera company into an international phenomenon. He went on to run the Salzburg Festival, challenging the festival’s traditions and upsetting the ultra-conservative audience by introducing a new generation of radical directors. At the end of his tenure at Salzburg, he founded the Ruhr Triennale, a festival of culture celebrating young performers and innovative work. From 2004 to 2009, he held the post of general director of the Paris Opera, again inspiring a mixture of devotion and loathing among the demanding Parisian opera-going public, whose conservatism he refused to accommodate.

While still in Paris, he accepted an invitation to go to the US to turn around the fortunes of the ailing New York City Opera, and immediately set about programming a daring (some would say foolhardy) season consisting entirely of 20th-century opera. However, after clashes with the company’s board over budgets, he resigned from NYCO before he had even officially started his tenure there, saying: ‘I cannot go to run a company that has less money than the smallest company in France – you don’t need me for that.’

Having flirted unsuccessfully with the idea of running the Bayreuth Festival, Mortier’s final years were spent as general director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, where he once again set about transforming a respected but parochial company into an international player, presenting a raft of contemporary work and new commissions including, last month, the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain.

Flemish by birth, the son of a baker and raised by Jesuits, Gerard Mortier studied law before embarking on a career in opera. Confrontational throughout his career, he felt he had a mission to engage an opera-going public with the intellectual rather than sentimental aspects of the art form. He dismissed Puccini as ‘superficial’ and tended to champion challenging modern work such as Berg’s Wozzeck and Messiaen’s François d’Assise over popular, lyrical operas from the 19th century. ‘Opera audiences are, almost by definition, conservative,’ Mortier told Opera Now in our last interview with him. ‘They feel that opera should be no more than a form of amusement or a purely aesthetic pleasure. I fight against that. OK, great singing is part of the enjoyment of opera, but all great opera has a political and social dimension which needs to be engaged with.’

Wherever Mortier went, controversy was never far behind. He caused consternation at his first press conference in Madrid, when he suggested that Spanish singers had no grasp of style and couldn’t tell the difference between Puccini and Verdi. Provocative to the last, he always thoughtful and even his most unpalatable views were delivered with a twinkle in the eye: ‘It’s true that everywhere I go, I have enemies,’ he said, ‘but I don’t seek out controversy. I have a very clear idea of what I want. I think that comes from my Jesuit upbringing. You’re taught to question everything and never accept anything at face value.’

Mortier announced shortly before his death that his successor should not be Spanish, in order to prevent the Teatro Real from sliding back into provincialism. In fact, Madrid house appointed Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona, to take over from Mortier last September.

In spite of a difficult tenure in Madrid, Mortier was commemorated at the Teatro Real yesterday with the dedication of yesterday’s performance of Gluck’s Alceste to his memory. A minute’s silence was observed and the flag in the theatre square was flown at half-mast. The opera house announced that at a future date, it would be organising a tribute to celebrate Mortier’s investment in young talent and new work.

  • Gerard Mortier, opera director and impresario, born 25 November 1943; died 8 March 2014

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