Connolly, Sarah


HippolyteJean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Emmanuelle Haïm, Ivan Alexandre, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Andrea Hill, Jaël Azzaretti, Salomé Haller, Aurélia Legay, Topi Lehtipuu, Stéphane Degout, François Lis, Marc Mauillon, Aimery Lefèvre, Manuel Nuñez Camelino, Nicholas Mulroy, Jérôme Varnier | Palais Garnier, Paris, 9 July 2012

This new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie comes at an interesting time in the recent revival of French Baroque opera. While William Christie has moved on to investigate further back through the works of Cavalli, Charpentier and Lully, the arrival - or so it seems - of Rameau’s first opera is freshly put into historical context. In some respects this works in its favour, allowing us to better understand the impact and the influence that Rameau would have on the world of French opera, but on the other hand, through Ivan Alexandre’s rather old-fashioned traditional production, the work suffers in comparison to the efforts that Christie and his collaborators have made towards making these works accessible and meaningful to a modern audience.

Mostly however, thanks to the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm, Hippolyte et Aricie does indeed show how much more modern a composer Rameau was in relation to his predecessors. The opera, the composer’s first and written late in his career, is perhaps still too mired in the conventions of the French tragédie lyrique, but coming after having published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722 and his New System of Music Theory in 1726 and having established his career as an accomplished composer of music for the harpsichord, technically Rameau’s music is much more advanced, breathing a freshness and sense of modernity into the ensemble arrangements, with the choral sections in particular sparking the work into life. In almost all other aspects however, but mainly in narrative or dramatic terms, Hippolyte et Aricie is a very dry, conventional baroque work that doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the composer’s other great works, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Les Boreades or Zoroastre.

It might help if you are familiar with the background of the Greek tragedy Phaedra as told by Euripides, Seneca or Racine - certainly most of the audience in Rameau’s time would have been familiar with the mythology - but even then Pellegrin’s libretto puts its own particular spin on the subject, as making Hippolyte and Aricie the focus of the story might suggest. A lot of the reworking was undertaken in order to meet the demands of the lyric stage, and Rameau’s opera complies with all the conventions of the form, from the opening prologue in a pastoral setting where Diana and Cupid issue challenges to settle a dispute over who reigns over the hearts of men, with a love story then at the heart of the work and scenes set for spectacle and variety in storms and journeys to the Underworld, with Gods and mythological figures dropping in at every opportunity to show off the stage machinery.

The production, directed by Ivan Alexandre with set designs by Antoine Fontaine, does its best to replicate a sense of the original spectacle using period-style props, backdrops and stage effects, the Gods descending impressively on clouds, on top of huge deluges of waves and from the mouths of giant mythical sea monsters. It looks terrific, but none of it really does anything for a dramatic style that already feels dated, failing to find a way that makes a modern audience want to care about the figures in this ancient drama that flits from scene to scene without making a great deal of sense. The colour schemes and lighting used don’t help matters, pale green and sepia under subdued lighting make this look dusty, faded and murky.

There are however compensating factors that make this more than worthwhile. First, of course, is Rameau’s music. If it’s not greatly attuned to the emotional undercurrents, it at least has musical variety (enough for ten operas according to Campra) and is full of wonderful harmonies and melodies. In narrative terms it’s a hugely disjointed work, a series of standalone scenes with linking recitative, interrupted even further and with regularity for choruses and ballet sequences at the most inappropriate of times, all to give the original intended audience the variety and contrast they would have expected, but the leaps and lurches at least allow Rameau to vary the rhythm and tempo with that distinct freshness of character. Most impressive are the choruses, which came across quite stunningly as sung by the Choir of the Concert d’Astrée, as well as a trio of voices of the three Fates. Musically, all of this was directed with a great sense of verve and rhythm by Emmanuelle Haïm.

Also very much in favour of the production was the terrific cast assembled here at the Palais Garnier, even if not all of the roles came across equally as well. Topi Lehtipuu and Anne-Catherine Gillet sang the parts of Hippolyte and Aricie well, with beautiful tone, but caught up in the disjointed narrative, their roles never really came to life and they were as dull as the costumes they were dressed in, slipping into the background. They did have a lot of colourful characters and singers to contend with however, such as Sarah Connolly’s dominant Phèdre, Jaël Azzaretti’s sparkling Amour (Cupid) and Stéphane Degout’s brooding Thésée (Theseus).

PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson | The Coliseum, 24 February 2012

If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.

This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.

Rosenkavalier

Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.

That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!

It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.

Rosenkavalier

A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.

The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.

The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.

Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.

CapriccioRichard Strauss - Capriccio

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Andrew Davis, John Cox, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, Peter Rose | The Met: Live in HD - April 23, 2011

In a short pre-performance interview before the Live in HD performance of Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, Renée Fleming spoke about the role of the Countess in the opera and, with no false modesty – although she would of course be the star of the piece – said that she considered the opera a true ensemble piece. This is true in more than one sense, for while there are equal roles for the other performers in Capriccio, the Countess no more prominent than any of them, opera itself is, by definition, an ensemble piece, and as an opera about opera, Capriccio really ought to be nothing else.

In that respect at least, Capriccio is a masterfully constructed opera, but you would expect nothing less from Richard Strauss, whose approach to opera I personally find sometimes a little more frustratingly intellectualised than truly emotional or from the heart. Even at his most emotionally intense, in the deep discordant personal trauma of Elektra, every single emotion seems to be dissected and analysed, every note perfectly attuned to the resonance of the mental state of its characters, leaving little room for interpretation or genuine feeling to come through. Strauss’ other most famous operas co-written with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, similarly demonstrate the composer’s ability to portray more than feel character behaviour, each of those operas self-reflexively really saying more about opera and the role of characters in an opera than anything meaningful about life and reality. Well, almost. What redeems all those operas are the little moments of heartfelt truths that are reached and expressed, principally, though the music itself.

One would not expect there to be a great deal of the warmth of life to be found in Capriccio, since the opera is indeed another of Richard Strauss’ intellectual exercises, the entire opera nothing more than a drawing room conversation between rich artists and intellectuals in an elegant Parisian chateau who talk endlessly about one subject; which is more important – words or music? The question comes up between the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, two guests at the birthday party of a widowed Countess Madeleine at her chateau. Each hoping to win the favour of the Countess, they seek to impress her with their arguments and force her to choose between them, but Madeleine is not swayed, recognising the beauty in both, particularly when they are brought together, each enhancing the other. The theatre director La Roche says that neither of them would have any value were it not for the director to interpret and stage the works, which leads the conversation onto the value of opera, and eventually the Count, the brother of Madeleine, suggests that they should all work together on an opera, the subject of which should be the events of that very evening and the conversation they have all had together.

Capriccio

That sounds like a fairly fruitless exercise on the part of Strauss, writing an opera that is about writing an opera about writing an opera – to say nothing about it having a distinct air of triviality for the time it was written, in Germany in 1942 during the Third Reich – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the qualities of Capriccio are, well, in the opera itself. As Renée Fleming noted, it’s an ensemble piece, and since each of the main characters are practically personifications of Music, Poetry and Drama, it’s the ensemble that is important in a work of opera. The role of the Countess may not seem to be as important as those other elements in the scheme of the composing of an opera – even Monsieur Taupe, the prompter has an important role to play – but she has perhaps the most vital role of all. What that role is isn’t exactly defined and it’s left for the listener to determine what that magic element is, but she could be, in hard-edged practical terms, the financer, or, more mystically, she is in some ways the inspiration, or even the harmony that brings them both together. She is also the audience, on whose reception, personal interpretation and personal identification the success of the drawing together of the various elements counts most. It’s not by chance then that the ending of the opera (and on a notionally dramatic level, her choice of the two suitors), which is left for the Countess to decide, is left open. The ultimate meaning and value of an opera lies with the listener.

It’s appropriate then that the weight of the argument is perfectly balanced on all sides, and this is where the brilliance of Capriccio lies. It opens with a string sextet – the music that is being played for the Countess – and it even stops the music to allow words to be spoken. Each of the characters then has their role, their chance to impress, expressed through the voice and in the words of the singers. Strauss even introduces an actor, Italian opera singers and a ballet sequence – all vital components that may go into an opera, particularly in the ideal of opera (considered to be Gluck here, as elsewhere), and each of them individually show their worth in Strauss’ beautiful flowing compositions. The Met’s production, a single act opera in a period room, itself demonstrates the value of staging, and it’s perfect. But in order for the opera to be more than the sum of its parts, it needs more than just the ensemble bringing them all together. It needs the Countess. It needs the magic. It needs that receptive audience. To be specific, it needs Renée Fleming. And this is the genius of Strauss’ work in Capriccio, in that he knows that the opera work is not complete, is never static – it’s alive. It’s as if Strauss had composed the opera for Renée Fleming, for a singer who in those final moments can bring something unique and special to that vital closing aria where she reaches out to the audience and communicates something ineffable, meaningful and personal. It’s a blissful moment that opens up everything that opera is and should be about.