Operation Guest Does Opera in concert work?

Handel’s Ariodante was performed at the Barbican Hall last Wednesday in concert form. In this week's column, our opera critic, Paul guest, reflects on whether opera in concert really works.

Classical & Opera, Hello Mozart, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2011 0:00 - 0 Comments

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Joyce DiDonato


By Paul Guest

Handel’s Ariodante was performed at the Barbican Hall last Wednesday in concert form and it got me thinking about, well, whether Opera works in concert.

If you’ve read my review then you’ll already know that I wasn’t bored while watching and listening to it. Because there are no costumes, direction or set, the whole piece suddenly becomes about the score and the singing and nothing else.

As a critic, I just sat there; the usual passing elephant or other gimmicks didn’t distract me from the musical splendours of the work itself – although admittedly there is only so much splendour one can find in a Handel opera. The musical analysis of the whole performance was thus much easier than if I had been watching it in the opera house.

So: there is massive difference for the audience but what about for the singer who has to portray a character without a set or costume yet still have to interpret and convey the same emotions convincingly? Well, I spoke to Welsh baritone Paul Carey Jones about the singer’s perspective, his view was that

“The term ‘concert performance’ encompasses a huge variety of formats in practice, from genuine stand-and-deliver performances with scores and music stands, through to what are essentially fully-staged productions lacking only sets and props. I think the key for the performer is that the format is clearly established right from the beginning of the process, and that it’s clear who’s in charge of the staging and dramatic interpretation. Under normal circumstances, the buck stops with the director. If that role in the creative process isn’t filled then it can cause problems. Any format can be made to work successfully, but the key is consistency – that all the performers on stage are playing by the same rules. The problems come when for example, some singers are using scores and some not, some moving about the stage and others standing still, and so on.”

Carey Jones is speaking about the format and how you normally have this huge section in the artistic production of dramatists to assist you with the visual portrayal of the character in question. But what if there was no such director and it was just all up to the singer?

“In theory that should make the actual singing easier for the singer, leaving them free to concentrate on the vocal demands of the role. Having said that, part of a singer’s job is to adapt the line of physical action in a staged performance to the technical demands of the singing, but that requires rehearsal time – so the real benefit of a concert performance in practice is that it should be possible to put it together with much less preparation time.”

“Personally my feeling is that concert performances can fulfill a useful role, as long as they’re not replacing or competing with staged productions. There would be little point having a concert performance of a standard repertoire piece in London for instance; but as a way of bringing full-scale opera to venues where it’s not normally available it can be rewarding; and perhaps even more importantly, it’s a way of presenting non-standard repertoire that might be viewed as too much of a risk for a full production, or that presents practical problems from a staging point of view. One of my first jobs after college was in a concert performance of Andrea Chenier with Scottish Opera. That’s a piece that’s difficult for any company to put on, essentially because of the numbers of performers required, so a concert performance was a way of allowing the public to hear a piece that they probably would never have got to hear otherwise.”

As a singer it seems that you really need to have your head, heart and soul in the score, especially if you’ve never sang the role on stage – In concert you have nothing to hide behind, no make up or costume, so your knowledge of the character is all-too important in order to convey a character’s emotions vocally and facially.

At this concert performance of Ariodante, Joyce DiDonato sang the title role and it was a delightful treat- the last time I saw DiDonato, she was singing from a wheelchair in Rossini’s Il barbiere di siviglia at Covent Garden; she was by all accounts fantastic and in this concert edition of Ariodante the same talents were on display, except this time she was standing. She is a great interpreter of character and her portrayal of the loved up Ariodante vocally and emotionally was admirable. The expressiveness of her eyes alone deserved a five star performance.

Personally, I think concert performances work. Having said that, opera is meant to be grand and dramatic and so, given the choice, I’d rather see opera in its intended setting, an opera house, with all the absurd make up, sets and costumes that surround the composer’s score. This is absolutely not meant as a disparagement to concert performances – In fact, sometimes they become a necessity: If we look at Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (Which has recently been staged by Terry Gilliam at the English National Opera) the narrative in the piece isn’t very strong and Berlioz wrote many long instrumental interludes between the various singing parts, which makes it difficult to give the whole performance a decent narrative integrity. As a result, it is often performed in concert, allowing the great music throughout the piece not to be hampered by the inadequacy of the narrative.

Of course, you would do well to go see and hear all this for yourself: the London Symphony Orchestra are playing a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican Hall in London on the 5th June 2011.

Paul Carey Jones is currently recording an album of new songs by David Power and other composers, to be released in early 2012. He appears at the Machynlleth Festival in August performing Schubert’s Winterreise with his regular collaborative partner, the pianist Llyr Williams.

Paul Guest is Ceasefire‘s Opera critic. He also writes for Classical Music Magazine, Gramophone and is the resident interviewer at Opera Britannia.

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