Love and Death in Venice

Venetian Mask

(Les Talens Lyriques with Christophe Rousset, Wigmore Hall, 26 February 2018)

As the city shivered in winter’s grip on Monday evening, those of us at the Wigmore Hall could imagine ourselves among the campi and canals of 17th-century Venice. The brilliant French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were back for another London concert under the baton of their director Christophe Rousset. You may remember that I thoroughly enjoyed their recital with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Anders Dahlin at St John’s Smith Square last year. This concert was very similar in spirit, including three of the same pieces, but it rang the changes by swapping the tenors for two talented sopranos: the Dutch Judith van Wanroij and the Belgian Jodie Davos. Through the music of Rossi, Cavalli and maestro Monteverdi himself, they carried us deep into timeless tales of fateful passion, all-consuming love and grand anguish.

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The Return of Ulysses (1640): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Berlin)

★★★★

(Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Diego Fasolis, 13 December 2017)

Berlin’s Staatsoper has just reopened after a seven-year refurbishment. On Wednesday, the house was sold out as people gathered to celebrate its freshly gilded finery. And what was on the menu for the grand reopening? Not a safe and predictable opera – a Tosca or a Bohème – but a dose of Roman passion and psychosis from the 17th century. With only three performances (this was the last, until its projected revival next summer), this Poppea felt intense, fresh and daring. It wasn’t without its wobbles, but it featured some very strong casting and offered a compelling picture of a court in thrall to an egotistical, unpredictable sun king. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got slightly carried away with the length of this post, so you may wish to furnish yourself with a cup of tea before starting. There are, however, some very pretty pictures.

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Zefiro Torna: Les Talens Lyriques

Botticelli: The Birth of Venus

(St John’s Smith Square, 7 June 2017)

As part of their celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were on stage in London for one night only, for a selection of madrigals and operatic scenes written by the great composer. I’d never seen them perform live, although I have many of their recordings, and was eager to see them at last under the baton of Christophe Rousset. The recital was made even more irresistible by the singers: two tenors whom I like very much: the Swiss Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whom I’ve seen in several other roles, and the Swedish haute contre Anders J. Dahlin, who sings Dario in my much-loved recording of Vivaldi’s Incoronazione di Dario. My expectations were high and yet, remarkably, they were exceeded by this elegant concert which blended heartfelt grace with dramatic verve.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 12-21 May 2017)

This spring, Hampstead Garden Opera are trying something new: their first Italian opera staged in the original language rather than English translation. The opera in question is Poppea, a perennial favourite of mine. Who could resist this blend of scheming, sexual abandon, murder and imperial arrogance? Certainly not me. Presented on a stripped-back set, this production focuses the attention firmly on the two women, Ottavia and Poppea, competing for the heart of Rome’s indolent, decadent emperor. With sterling support from Musica Poetica, under the baton of Oliver John Ruthven, and a number of exciting voices to add to my watchlist, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon out.

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Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)

Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Poppea: Vienna

★★★★

(Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 19 October 2015)

Before seeing Poppea, I’d been warned it was ‘hardcore Regietheater’, a phrase which would normally provoke serious qualms. But even I know better than to go to a Claus Guth production expecting togas and sandals. Despite my conservative tastes I can appreciate regie if it’s done well. It depends whether the director’s taken time to think about the story, or whether he’s simply thrown in sharks, parrots or a live bull for the sake of it. Guth certainly fell into the first category. His production isn’t traditional, but it’s based on an intelligent reading of the story. It toys with the audience’s expectations and makes you think afresh about the dynamics between the characters. This Poppea is good regie: deceptively playful, with a heart of darkness.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Poppea Norway (7)

★★

(Norwegian National Opera 2010, conducted by Alessandro De Marchi)

I’d been itching to see this production of Poppea for some time, ever since stumbling across some clips of Tim Mead’s E pur io torno on YouTube. The clips showed a bare, stripped-back set and a very striking use of colour, and the cast list looked promising. So on Saturday night, after a rather draining couple of days, I settled down to lose myself in one of my favourite operas. As you’ll be able to deduce from the rating, it wasn’t quite the treat it was meant to be.

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Orfeo: Claudio Monteverdi (1607)

★★★★

(Royal Opera House in collaboration with the Roundhouse, January 2014)

In 1607 Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, came up with a rather original way to celebrate Carnival at his court. It was inspired by something he’d seen in Florence a few years earlier in 1600, when he’d been a guest at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France. He’d been deeply impressed by the main entertainment offered at the festivities: a new kind of play, set to music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (who’d already produced a similar work called Dafne in 1597).

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

★★★★

(Teatro Real, Madrid, with Les Arts Florissant and William Christie, 2010)

In the wake of the Barbican’s semi-staged Poppea, I decided to have another go at the DVD of this 2010 version from the Teatro Real in Madrid, to see how the two productions compared. It had completely bewildered me first time round. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it much more now that I had a better appreciation of the opera and its context. There are certain elements that I think the Barbican did better, but the Madrid version, with its stellar cast, certainly throws a long shadow. It’s staged, which is a big plus for me; but it completely overshadows the Barbican in one other important way as well.

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