Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Wadsworth’

Master Class, Vaudeville Theatre, London’s West End, February 2012

8 February, 2012

Excerpts from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Puccini’s Tosca, and Verdi’s Macbeth by young singers trying out their talents in front of Maria Callas. Sometimes she stops them even before they’ve uttered their first note, and it’s glorious fun, with Tyne Daly giving a stunning portrayal of the diva. She’s imperious, impatient, and intensely musical. “Just listen. Everything is in the music”.

Tyne Daly as Maria Callas, all images Johan Persson

Indeed it is, and Callas was one of the great musical actresses of the twentieth century. At the start of Act II she is holding the score of Bellini’s Norma, but when her third student appears and suggests she could sing the heroine’s opening aria Casta Diva, Callas tells her to forget it. Quite right too. Casta Diva is very hard, and too easy to mess up, even for top-flight singers whom she rather rudely compares to performing seals. She mentions names such as Scotto and Sutherland, referred to by the press as her ‘rivals’, but “How can you have rivals when no-one can do what you do?” When the third singer returns to stage, after throwing up in her dressing room, Callas tells her she could sing Mimi (in Bohème) or Michaela (in Carmen), but not the big dramatic roles such as Norma or Lady Macbeth because she’s too young. This elicits the response that Callas herself sang Medea when she was young. “I was never young — I couldn’t afford it”, and she goes on to mention the word Mut in German, meaning something like courage felt from the heart.

Callas had a heart, and this finely crafted play by Terrence McNally shows how it was seriously wounded towards the end of her career by that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who dumped her and married Jackie Kennedy. Maria Callas was a forthright, determined and ultimately tragic figure, but the presentation never flags and is hugely witty in parts, helped by excellent direction from Stephen Wadsworth. I laughed out loud at several points, sometimes without a word being spoken.

Tyne Daly with Naomi O'Connell

But this play is also about the music and singing, with Dianne Pilkington in Act I delivering excerpts from Amina’s arias in Sonnambula while Callas stops her at almost every breath. Then as Cavaradossi in Tosca, Garrett Sorenson shows he hasn’t a clue what church the hero is in, or even what’s really going on, but after a brief conflict with Callas he launches into that early Act I aria Recondita armonia, and she is transfixed. When performing in Tosca herself she was always waiting to make her first entrance singing Mario! Mario! off-stage, and had no time to admire the beauty of the tenor’s voice. Finally, young Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell gave a dramatic performance as Lady Macbeth.

This has transferred from its Broadway success, where Tyne Daly and Garrett Sorenson played the same roles, as did Jeremy Cohen as the engagingly laconic pianist. If you like opera, it’s a must-see, and if you don’t it is still a fascinating portrayal of a great performer, showing intense dedication to her art. But most of all it’s great fun with never a dull moment.

Performances continue until April 28 — for details click here.

Rodelinda, Metropolitan Opera live relay, December 2011

4 December, 2011

The Met first produced this Handel opera in the same production in 2004 with Renée Fleming in the title role. In this live cinema screening she took on the role again and gave a wonderful performance, showing the anguish of the queen who has apparently lost her husband Bertarido in battle, and is now wooed by Grimoaldo, the man who has taken over as ruler. Joseph Kaiser gave an excellent performance as this usurper, who is loved by Bertarido’s sister Eduige, but falls in love with Rodelinda.

Rodelinda with her son, all images Ken Howard

The emotions are complex: desire, scheming, suffering and constant love, but everyone ends up happily ever after, except the nasty Garibaldo, confidante of Grimoaldo who is scheming to acquire the kingdom for himself. Shenyang sang strongly as this unpleasant character, showing him to be a cunning, emotionless power-seeker who over-reaches himself and is killed by Bertarido just as he is about to murder Grimoaldo.

Rodelinda with Berterido

Iestyn Davies as Unulfo

Joseph Kaiser, who sang gloriously as Grimoaldo, amply demonstrated the insecurities of this would-be king, particularly in the face of Renée Fleming’s evident strength as Rodelinda, offering her own son as sacrifice, knowing full well that such a proposal will place the usurper in an impossible position. With Stephanie Blythe singing a very powerful Eduige, the two ladies in the cast had enough strength to carry the entire opera, but they were brilliantly backed up by the other performers. Apart from the tenor and bass parts (Grimoaldo and Garibaldo), there were originally two roles for alto castratos, sung here by Andreas Scholl as Bertarido, and Iestyn Davies as his confidante Unulfo. The latter moves seamlessly between the new court and his exiled master, who anxiously awaits an opportunity to regain power and be reunited with Rodelinda and their son. Iestyn Davies gave an incredible performance as Unulfo, singing as if this were his natural voice, and making the very capable Andreas Scholl sound an unnatural falsetto by comparison.

Grimoaldo with Eduige, Rodelinda and Berterido at rear

The conducting by Harry Bicket was a joy to hear. He gave a wonderful buzz to the overture, and continued to produce a fine clarity of sound, making the musicians of the Metropolitan opera sound like a baroque orchestra. It was he who conducted this opera when Stephen Wadsworth’s excellent production was new in 2004, the beautiful sets and costumes updating this story of a 7th century Lombard king to Handel’s time of the early eighteenth century.

Iphegénie en Tauride, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, February 2011

27 February, 2011

The Trojan War informed Greek literature, which  then informed a European culture that read the great plays by Sophocles and Euripedes. They in turn inspired opera composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) whose new form of opera used music and drama to support one another in a way hitherto unseen. Gluck inspired Wagner, Berlioz and others, and when Iphégenie en Tauride was produced in a German version two years after its premiere in Paris, Mozart attended almost all the rehearsals.

Graham, Domingo and Groves

This was Gluck’s penultimate opera, and the purity of its music endows the story with enormous clarity. The background is that when Agamemnon was ready to embark with the Greek forces  to Troy he was denied a fair wind, and demands were made that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. He acceded and the ships set off. When he returned home ten years later his wife Klytemnestra killed him, and their daughter Elektra yearned for her brother Orestes to return and take vengeance on his mother. Orestes eventually made his return, committed the deed and was pursued by the furies. In the meantime, in a second version of the story by Euripedes, the goddess Artemis replaced the sacrificial Iphigeneia with a deer at the last moment, transporting the real one to the land of the Taurians, where it was her duty as a priestess to sacrifice any foreigners who landed on the shores of her new land.

In this excellent production by Stephen Wadsworth we see, just before the overture, Artemis intervene to save the life of the sacrificed Iphigeneia, and during the opera we also see the murder of Agamemnon by Klytemnestra, performed by two actors, appearing in a nightmare to Orestes. He was beautifully portrayed by Placido Domingo, well supported by Paul Groves as his comrade Pylades. With Susan Graham giving a wonderful performance as Iphigeneia, Domingo and Groves were superbly matched, and the stresses they suffer, as the two men vie for the honour of being sacrificed to let the other one go, were gloriously portrayed. All three were ably opposed by Gordon Hawkins as the wicked King Thoas of the Taurians.

Pylades and Orestes, all photos by Ken Howard

Gluck’s glorious opera, with its excellent libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard deserves a superb production, and it got it. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz were excellent, and the choreography for the Taurian soldiers, by Daniel Pelzig, was forcefully danced. These are Scythians from the central Asian steppe, so the Russian-style dancing was entirely appropriate. Gluck is little performed these days, but what a great opportunity this was to see one of his greatest operas, and with fine conducting by Patrick Summers, along with Domingo, Groves and Graham in the main roles one could hardly do better. Susan Graham gave a convincing portrayal of Iphigeneia’s attempts to sacrifice Orestes, and for a moment it looked as if the curse of Atreus would succeed in having her unwittingly kill her own brother. Fortunately she could not manage it, so Pylades had time to bring in Greek warriors to rescue Orestes, enabling him to return and rule his native Mycenae. In Greek tradition the furies (erinyes) were replaced by the eumenides, and Orestes was redeemed.

Iphigeneia and Orestes

This opera by Gluck gives a peerless representation of the conflicting emotions and tensions in this story, and as Schiller wrote, “Never has music moved me so purely and so beautifully as this music has done, it is a world of harmony that penetrates the very soul and causes it to dissolve in sweet and lofty sadness”.