Opera in Ireland: State of Play – Part 4
Opera Theatre Company: Così fan Tutte
Scottish Opera: The Magic Flute
The Met:Live in HD: La Clemenza di Tito
TO be able to see Mozart’s last three full-length operas, in the course of seven days, was a rare privilege.
The more I have studied Mozart’s operas in the last 18 years, the more convinced I have become that he anticipated his death, in 1791. He was a man in a hurry, stressed and anxious, desperate to be recognised and to get written down the music that was all ready, already in his head.
In the final months of his life, he had composed the motet Ave, verum corpus and his haunted Clarinet Concerto, while on his desk at that same time lay the autographs of Tito, the Flute and the unfinished Requiem.
Così fan tutte
Cosi lies a little further back in his output (early 1790).
Dublin-based Opera Theatre Company’s 2012-3 winter tour is taking its new production of this opera to fifteen venues in eleven counties in the south, until February 23.
Again no invitation has been extended to OTC to bring its work to the north.
(In February 2011 and in February 2012, with the unstinting support of Down Arts Centre, I personally promoted OTC’s touring productions of Don Pasquale and The Magic Flute for one-night stands in the Great Hall Downpatrick and we played to capacity audiences on both occasions).
Yet at a time when we are trying to develop entente cordiale in and through the arts in this country, north and south, this is less than adequate.
The N I Arts Council is spending huge wodges of our taxes on Scottish Opera and Opera North productions, which arrive at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in sealed container lorries, fully staffed, for a couple of nights, in and out like circuses.
Welsh National Opera, as we know, has left the building, and when Ellen Kent brings her grandstand productions to the Waterfront Hall, it may be the same difference, but it is essentially private enterprise, and Ellen has been doing this regularly since Belfast’s darker days in 1997 and without public sector funding.
Her production of Carmen, for example, will be given in the Waterfront on April 02.
OTC’s Così opened on November 24 in Dublin’s Gleeson Theatre.
It was awkwardly staged, but generally well sung (particularly by Mairéad Buicke and Simon Wilding, as Fiordiligi and Alfonso), the 6-piece band was fluent and the orchestration tight, but the costumes were very unflattering, and do I sense a dominant house-style beginning to make OTC productions rather predictable, in spite of a recent change of director, with Belfast’s Annilese Miskimmon (gone to run Danish National Opera) ceding to Kilkenny’s Orpha Phelan?
The general management and artistic direction of a compact touring company such as Opera Theatre Company, as is also the case with Lyric Opera Productions (discussed earlier in Part 3 of these essays), is subject to almost impossible constraints, the more so in the pits of an economic recession whose impact on our disposable income has finally, after four years, taken us to rock bottom.
Wexford Festival Opera (see Part 2) is the only seeming exception to this in Ireland but given its size and shape Wexford is accordingly more exposed to artistic highs and lows.
I liked director Phelan’s argument that Don Alfonso be central to Così, making him the itinerant hustler-cum-puppeteer, more devious than Dulcamara or Goro, less vicious than Iago or Méphistofélès, and his Act 1 horse-shoe caravan was effectively ridiculous.
The jetty-set in Act 2 looked awful tacky by comparison (no gondolas in Naples of course),
but Phelan’s less than happy ending did justify her approach to the story’s bet against chastity.
It is probable that this opera would have been lost to us without the intervention of Richard Strauss and Thomas Beecham, and then John Christie at Glyndebourne.
Of course the play is trivial and artificial, like Gilbert and Sullivan, but there is no argument about the music, and soprano Buicke sang her two big numbers quite beautifully and lifted our gaze for a while above the threadbaredness of the production’s budget.
OTC now plans to do Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress (1951) in May and Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) in October and, if they pull those off, and sell them (these are not big-hitting, mainstream works), any creeping suspicion of a head-in-the-sand house style may well be blown out of the water.
Details on www.opera.ie
There are at least two outstanding recordings of this opera, on CD, both conducted by Karl
Bӧhm (Decca, 1955 and EMI, 1962), collectors’ items both
The Magic Flute
Has Scottish Opera ever given us a dud show in the Grand Opera House Belfast?
I don’t remember one, and their new Magic Flute (seen on November 29) was a very impressive, creditable and engaging production.
Durham-born baritone Sir Thomas Allen was the stage director, and his insights into Schikaneder’s mystical, bawdy text, the witty translation, the visual impact of the fascinating multi-faceted set (designer Simon Higlett), the superb interactive touches of pantomime and some brilliant voices made for a night at the opera to relish.
Steampunk dominated the visuals, and echoes of H G Wells, Jules Verne and W Heath Robinson were there in abundance.
Reaching us at the end of a six week tour across Scotland, we benefited from the verve and polish the production had acquired on its travels, and Jonathan Best (Sarastro), Richard Burkhard (Papageno) and Mari Moriya (Queen of the Night) were the jewels in a starry crown of talent.
My recommended CDs of this opera were conducted by Otto Klemperer (EMI, 1962) and William Christie (Erato, 1996).
And for my comments on Wexford’s recent pocket edition of The Magic Flute, see Part 2 of this series of reflections, posted here on November 20.
La Clemenza di Tito
I can’t explain how or why I have grown to like this opera so much.
It was a commission, an inconvenience which Mozart could not afford to turn down in the middle of writing The Magic Flute and the Requiem.
Furthermore it was classical drama/ opera seria in the style of Metastasio, Mozart’s first since Idomeneo ten years earlier.
It was not fine tuned (there was no time) either before or after its prima in Prague, exactly three months before Mozart died.
Apart from Tito, the other four principal characters are not well developed; there is a sameness about all their arias, form and content measurably less varied than in his other operas – yet the music per se is glorious, uplifting, purgative, Aristotelian.
In the Met: Live in HD transmission (seen on December 01 in Dundonald, east Belfast) all these considerations had been addressed and absorbed into an astonishingly credible production, a revival of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s original.
Barbara Frittoli sang Vitellia with a scorn and a cynicism worthy of Monteverdi’s Poppea.
And in the trouser roles of Sesto and Annio, Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča and young American Kate Lindsey were more than a match vocally and dramatically for Frittoli’s venom.
The Karl Bӧhm conducted recording of Clemenza (Deutsche Grammophon, 1979) is probably the best around on CD.
In Part 5 of this series of articles on the state of play of opera-in-performance in Ireland – a snapshot extending over 9-10 weeks and covering 13 opera productions – it will be time to draw some threads together and to reflect on what is an ad hoc free-for-all of initiatives, whose strengths are being dissipated rather than enhanced by competitiveness, no thanks to two Arts Councils (in Dublin and Belfast) who have no clear-cut strategies in place to put opera in Ireland centre stage.
Meanwhile two Verdi operas, Un Ballo in maschera (1859) and Aida (1871) will be seen in venues throughout Ireland, live in HD direct from the Met in New York, on December 08 and 15 respectively.
Details on www.classicalartsireland.com
George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland, north and south, and teaches Opera studies in higher education.
His Recitals of light classical, popular and sacred music will be presented at various venues in Downpatrick in February and March 2013, and full details will be published shortly on DownNews.