2004 – 2005
This page presents reviews of the performances that took place in 2004 and 2005. We would like to express our gratitude to the authors for their invaluable contributions.
Copyright notice: The reviews published on this page are the intellectual property of the respective contributors and are subject to UK and International Copyright Laws. Their use/reproduction without the authors’ explicit permission is illegal.
Excerpts from Les Troyens in Dublin
By Kevin O’Neill
RTE National Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Gerhard Markson
National Concert Hall, Dublin, Friday 16 September 2005, 8.00pm
This concert was a nice mélange of the Contemporary and the Romantic. There was a world première – an RTE commission called Winter Finding by Ian Wilson; Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op.61 by Camille Saint-Saëns with Pierre Amoyal as the soloist; and, the highlight of the evening, excerpts from Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.
This performance of the excerpts from Les Troyens was quite extraordinary. Gerhard Markson’s direction and conducting brought out a Tour de force interpretation of sound from this marvellous orchestra.
Lamento for Les Troyens à Carthage
(listed on the concert programme as Overture)
A very pleasant introduction almost like awakening to a dream. There was the feeling of fear and foreboding along with calmness and serenity. The opening had a sudden sinister carefree element to it.
Royal Hunt and Storm
There was a sense of regality and majesty before the coming of a storm. The use of the horns gave one the feel of an enjoyable day out with a hunting party. The combination of the strings, brass and timpani in the sudden crescendos gave a sinister premonition of the terrible event that is to come – Aeneas would soon leave Dido to found Rome. In the Storm, the strings also gave the sense of violent waves were crashing against the shoreline. A taste of things to come.
Ballets – a). Pas des Almées, b). Danse des Esclaves, c). Pas d’Esclaves nubiennes
These ballets had the sensation of a court soirée for guests filled with relaxation – in the opera they are performed to celebrate Aeneas’s victory over Iarbas, the Numidian king, the enemy of Carthage. In listening very carefully to the smooth calm movement of the strings and winds, I could almost recall the heartfelt feeling of the Passions or the idée fixe from the Symphonie fantastique.
What a splendid piece! The forte and tempo of this March had a sense of magnificence about it. The use of the brass and strings almost denoted a sort of unity in calling on all forces to unite and fight under one banner. The Trojan March felt so triumphalist that I felt there was a very strong musical resemblance to the triumphal and superb setting of La Marseillaise as arranged by Berlioz in 1830.
On the whole this programme of excerpts shows in my opinion Berlioz’s own mastery of the Romantic era in his own music, his love of literature and also of his own unique style of the Passions. I think this is another fine example of how people (to quote Meat Loaf!) will do anything for love regardless of the consequences.
The National Symphony Orchestra gave a wonderful performance and produced an excellent sound. This concert was the last in which the Principal Third Horn of the NSO, Tom Briggs, played. He worked for the RTE NSO for 43 years as Principal Third Horn and played under many distinguished conductors. It was a moving and special occasion for him too and is something he can be proud of. I noticed how he gave the horns a very ‘senior’ sound in his playing. In performing the Berlioz, I thought it was a rather nice way to bow out on a high note and "blow his own trumpet".
Roméo et Juliette at Royal Albert Hall, London
By Alan Merryweather and Mary Weber
31 July 2005, Royal Albert Hall, London
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Chorus
conductor: Ilan Volkov
Katarina Karneus (mezzo-soprano)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)
My annual visit to the Proms this year had to be to hear the Berlioz Roméo et Juliette at the Royal Albert Hall in London. By yesteryear’s standards the concert was far too brief, but the opportunity to hear this surpassingly beautiful work could not be missed. In any case, all music is enhanced by the ambience of this magnificent concert hall. It was a little disappointing to find the hall only about two-thirds full, but no doubt the televising of the event had an effect on attendance.
The opening allegro seemed to be taken at a furious pace, but the orchestra was equal to the challenge of the conductor’s tempo, and any lingering doubts my companion may have had that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was not a first-rate body of players were quickly dismissed. Live trombones with tuba resounded as they played the part of the prince.
The voice of Katarina Karénus could have been a little stronger, but she sang the strophes clearly.
For some reason, listening to Roméo seul I had the pleasure of one of those momentary flashbacks to many years ago when I first heard this movement, adding a special delight.
But the core of the work is, of course, the sublime adagio. It was so moving that it seemed to be over all too quickly. Here I experienced the unique but all too rare delight of live music: the bloom and warmth of the strings which never comes across so well in recorded versions, no matter how fine the equipment.
The orchestra again showed its mastery in the tomb scene where the attack of the violins has to be absolutely precise.
To me the weakness of the performance was the singing of John Relyea, a rich bass indeed but, from where I was sitting, a little unfocused, even fuzzy (all richness but no edge). However, he successfully held his part but could not compete with the very large chorus who brought the work to its majestic conclusion.
However, who could not be profoundly moved by the whole, adding yet another memory which will linger for a very long time?
My first experience of a live performance of Berlioz’s personal favourite, Roméo et Juliette, (discounting TV lights and cameras and what seemed an embarrassingly sparse attendance) was sublime. The sensual appeal of the colours and luxury of the Royal Albert Hall was an ideal setting for the playing out of Berlioz’s and Shakespeare’s most sensual and heartrending tragedy. My seat was high in the balcony of the Circle, a location which added to my impression of other-worldly beauty while listening to Berlioz’s divine music. In short, the venue and the music were beautifully wedded, doing honour to the two lovers’ own union.
Berlioz’s deeply loved music washed over me in my aerie perch, and I floated through it all blissfully. I was particularly struck by the Queen Mab scherzo, its lightness and precision offering an enchanting intermezzo from the unrelieved sadness of the balance of the symphony. The other moment which captivated me was the plaintive murmuring of the clarinet as Juliette awakens from her drugged death-like state. John Relyea’s (Le Père Laurence) incredibly rich bass voice made the Finale a special pleasure for me. I felt that he added a certain credibility to his role which is missing from other interpretations.
My sole complaint was that the concert was brief with only the one ninety-five minute work being offered. The presence of three competent soloists would have offered an ideal opportunity to perform some of Berlioz’s lovely Mélodies.
All in all, the experience of a Proms concert featuring this transcendently beautiful work was worth the trip from California.
San Diego, California
2 August 2005
Symphonie Fantastique in Belfast
By Kevin O’Neill
Friday 20 May 2005, Ulster Orchestra, Waterfront Hall, Belfast
The performance of the Symphonie fantastique was quite superb. The Ulster Orchestra captured the essence of Berlioz’s music perfectly thanks to Thierry Fischer’s direction. I would say his interpretation was worthy of being a 5 star CD recording. It was close to the version that I have with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, conducted by his fellow Swiss countryman Charles Dutoit. There was a real ‘French’ feeling to this performance. I say this due to watching the dedication Thierry Fischer put in conducting this superb œuvre of the orchestral repertoire. And doing this LIVE made it that bit more special.
1st movement (Rêveries – Passions)
This contained all of the excitement and passion of the early Romantic. In listening one could feel these "Passions" all the way through with the theme of the ideé fixe creeping in here and there which gave me the impression that this LOVE for the lady concerned (ideé fixe) was never going to go away. Almost like an opening and outpouring of the heart. The players played to the best of their ability, almost as if they were the individual who was in love.
2nd Movement (Un bal)
It was very relaxing, pleasant and flowing. It gave me the feeling of being joyful and cheerful. But despite this any feeling of cheerfulness is hauntingly brought down to earth with the reality of the theme of the ideé fixe going in and out a few bars before closing the movement. It was like the calm before the storm.
3rd Movement (Scène aux champs)
A combination of calm and the storm. The use of a cor anglais in the orchestra and an oboe behind the stage with an open door conveyed the impression of the distance of the two shepherds as they were talking to each other. The theme suddenly changed from being settled to disturbed like a nice day becoming a bad one. I had the feeling of sadness and heartbreak listening to certain bars in this movement. The thunder of the timpani gave me the impression of the violence and exactness of a storm just like Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony. The ideé fixe theme creeping in and out gave me the feeling of isolation and loneliness. It was like being troubled and filled with fear and foreboding. An acceptance of what was going to happen was going to be anything but good. The piano sounding of the instruments gave it the sensation of being quiet and peaceful despite the unfolding story to the contrary.
4th Movement (Marche au supplice)
Chop Chop! This was a very thunderous and violent outburst. I was captivated by a feeling of judgement and dread before the final execution. The last couple of bars to close this movement gave me the impression of watching an execution two centuries ago.
5th Movement (Songe d’une nuit de sabbat)
One has to feel pity for the gruesome ending in this work. The triumph of the witches gathering was like evil being the dominant force. The bell booming out the "Dies Irae" theme was quite solemn. It was like the Dark Side (in Star Wars) had won and where the character was concerned this meant doom. Almost as if he was dragged down to hell. The loudness and violence of crescendos in the brass, timpani and percussion communicated this very effectively.
Some Notes on the staging of Benvenuto Cellini in Gelsenkirchen
By John Ahouse
Performance date: 12 December 2004
Between October and December of 2004, the Musiktheater im Revier, the regional opera company in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, gave Benvenuto Cellini for a remarkable run of a dozen fully-staged performances in the thousand-seat "Grosses Haus", with two more scheduled for early in January. Well received by the local press, the opera seems to have caught on with audiences as well, since the performance I attended on December 12th was reportedly sold out.
Reviewers spent praise on the Cellini of Burkhard Fritz, whose light tenor seemed just right for the role in a production that emphasised the more giocoso aspects of the story. My own favourite was the Teresa of Claudia Braun, who brought tears to my eyes with her "Ah, que vais-je faire?" at the start of the carnival and continued to convince me that she, poor thing, was caught up in emotional tides beyond her young years. Reviewers had faulted the chorus on the opening night; no doubt after two months of performing their difficult music, much had become second nature. The Swiss conductor Samuel Bächli certainly had the measure of the music, which came across as pure Berlioz, without exaggeration or idiosyncrasy. As infrequently as Cellini is staged, however, some interest might attach to a brief description of what audiences actually saw during the three-hour performance of the opera.
With the curtain down, the overture begins with its familiar explosion anticipating the allegro to come. Once the quieter music takes over, a spotlight finds a woman (long hair, dress) standing on a small platform, slightly to the viewers’ right in front of the curtain. With the progress of the music, this figure removes her skirt, donning trousers instead, and pins her hair invisibly beneath her cap. When the allegro returns, the light and the lady vanish, Beethoven’s surprise having been completely undone. Beethoven? Yes, it is Fidelio, in nearby Dortmund three nights after Cellini (in a mediocre staging of the kind where large photos of "desaparacidos" are displayed around the stage throughout in case anyone missed the point that this is an opera about political prisoners).
The vignette during the Fidelio overture is described first because much the same sort of impudence occurred during the Cellini overture in Gelsenkirchen. In front of the curtain showing the gigantic head of Perseus, and ‘after the familiar explosion anticipating the allegro to come’, two figures had been spotlighted during Berlioz’s larghetto. The Cellini-to-be is on his knees, furiously sketching, while the Ascanio-to-be wanders distractedly off the box where he has been posing. Rebuked (pantomime) by Cellini, Ascanio resumes his position. He has a wooden sword in one hand and is holding some sort of gourd dangling from the other. The pose is suddenly and unmistakably that of the future statue of Perseus, a nice touch, which also captures the master-apprentice relationship of the two. With the return of the allegro deciso, the light and the figures vanish.
Is this something new in German opera houses – putting the overture to use to anticipate the drama by more than musical means? In the case of Benvenuto Cellini, a work containing its own pantomime, perhaps it was a questionable decision. It brought a first laugh of the evening, however, when Ascanio, like many an artist’s model, obviously "drooped" the moment Cellini turned back to his drawing. This was to be a performance of Cellini which would continue to emphasise the more burlesque elements of the drama.
The first scene played out on the street in front of Balducci’s house, represented by a perfectly captured De Chirico façade (white receding arches, such as appear in several of his well known paintings) running at an angle from the viewer’s left toward the rear centre of the stage. Large upper story windows were cut low enough for the various figures to lean out below their knees, so that the drawing room antics with Balducci could take place without a "fauteuil" or any other props: the characters simply popped out and disappeared from the various windows suggestive of the hide-and-seek going on inside, while the spacious street allowed for a properly comedic thrashing of Fieramosca by the throng of neighbours in night clothes.
For the second scene, the De Chirico wall had been realigned to run straight back on the left, now serving as the tavern, with a long table placed before it to accommodate Cellini’s men when they raised their cups. Since the stage itself was raked, the table must have been engineered with complicated algorithms, and in the event was not as level as it appeared, since several prop items unexpectedly slid from it, despite this being the tenth performance of the opera. For the carnival, the wall on the left was then recessed even more, and a stage-within-the-stage with its own curtain for the pantomime closed off the view to the rear.
Filled with revellers, the space for the carnival seemed cramped, and the director (Andreas Baesler) had the bizarre idea of adding a photographer to the general milling about. This angular and anachronistic figure in modern dress darted among the merry-makers popping flashes long after any humorous effect was lost. Another dubious inspiration marked the duel, where the Cellini-monk, after a few sabre thrusts, drew a pistol to dispatch his adversary. This is the "Indiana Jones" solution, again played for comedy, but nullifying the (musically) palpable parting of the crowd when the wounded figure falls. If the pistol shot had been loud, the Sant’Angelo canons were even louder. Anyone expecting the distant rumble from the Davis recording was lifted from his seat by the close-up roar of Gelsenkirchen’s ordnance.
To begin the second act, the stage presented a sunken interior with a Roman couch for Teresa. An opening to the viewer’s right was wide enough to show the passing procession of monks on the street outside and, later, the arrival of the Pope’s entourage. In their duet, Ascanio allowed himself a display of great tenderness, which Teresa reciprocated. Their close harmonies were matched by rather intense embraces, so much so that both jumped up on Cellini’s entrance like two teenagers (which they are) caught going too far. (Let no one say it isn’t in the music!) As for the Pope, his arrival was of limited grandeur owing to the fact that he descended two steps to Cellini’s level and left most of his retinue outside at the door.
For the final tableau, the Pope was seated regally on the left, with the rear of the stage now taken up by a high doorway marking the foundry entrance. Cellini’s prior achievement (statuettes and candlesticks) was arrayed high along the left wall, tumbling on cue and with a great clatter in response to Cellini’s prayer. Steam and lurid flashes issued from the shrouded portal throughout the casting, arousing expectations of seeing the finished work, but, sad to say, this was mostly left to the imagination. For the detonation, the designers produced an orange fireball of great intensity. Even in the ninth row, I felt singed, but no statue appeared except in silhouette. All on the stage were clearly convinced that Cellini had brought it off, however, and an oversize figure emerged from the furnace with actual flames licking at his shoulders (Was this a workman? Was this Perseus? Was this an alter-ego of the artist? All three?). Cellini now sank to the floor, and the score proceeded to its joyous conclusion. One reviewer saw this as Cellini’s mad-scene; I found the ending visually confusing, though again, the truth is in the music.
This was a production employing additional lines of spoken dialogue intended by the composer for a staging at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1856 which never took place. The existence of this material is mentioned by Hugh Macdonald in the introduction to NBE la, with a promise to publish it in volume 1d. The dialogue was rendered in German, but the score was sung in French. With its attention to the comedic, however oddly conveyed (Teresa clutched a teddy bear at troubled moments), the Gelsenkirchen "Cellini" must have moved closer than previous stagings to the sprightly entertainment the composer had in mind.
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