Northern Opera; the hidden gem of the classical world.

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Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too often, we are guilty of thinking of opera in terms of crumbling members of the House of Lords, shuffling into Covent Garden in black tie, grip-ping a gin and tonic in their shaking hands, to listen to some daft plump woman screech for three hours. In reality: Not the case at all. It’s about time that people realised that opera exists not for the entitled few, but for the many, and that it exists north of the M5. Truly, the opera companies of the North of England (“Opera North”) and of Scotland (“The Scottish Opera”) have produced some of the most dazzling, hilarious and moving productions I have experienced. Truly, they are shining northern lights. And here is my take on a few I have been privileged enough to see, from the perspective of a geeky music enthusiast. “The Barber of Seville” Opera North – Rossini Right from the offset, Rossini’s chaotic, opera buffa (1816) cements itself as a keystone, typical of the late classical period. The overture starts, as so many of Rossini’s opera do, with a single unison note from the whole orchestra. As the it lurches into full swing, we hear straight away, the melody is carried by an expanded string section underneath and a bas-soon – on top. Instead of the harpsichord, modest strings and sporadic woodwind we might expect from a baroque orchestra, Rossini’s overture makes use of flutes, oboes, trombones and importantly – a clarinet, a new in-novation in the classical period.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is so distinctive about the overture and indeed what defines the classical period in general is that there is a clear, ineffably hummable melody, carried in different sections of the overture ether my clarinet, flute or strings etc. Two minutes in, the strings begin to do what can only be described as chase one another in a lively manner, with the melody being shared by them and the woodwind. A call and response between the strings and woodwind appears at the beginning of the overture and is continued on throughout. This, as well as the element of periodicity (another feature of the classical period) – the recurrence of themes and segments throughout the overture all building to a crashing crescendo with two unison notes at the end, mimic the chaos and cyclical madness of the crazy day of Beaumarchais’ original play about the wily barber.Throughout the rest of the opera, Rossini earns well his title of “Mr Crescendo”; we are never more than a few lines of recit away from another showstopper. One such, is Rosina’s cavatina in act 1 “Una Voce Poco Fa”, which was transposed up a semi-tone to allow coloratura soprano Katie Bray to deliver it with the addition of some cadenzas, traditional of the period, reaching up in to high D’s and at some points even F’s. Despite the extras, Bray ensured the aria remained free of too much ornamentation, which it is tempting to add, with a clear vocal melody sitting atop a clearly recurring melody carried by the strings and woodwind underneath. The music of the cavatina is filled with distinctive classical techniques such as pizzicato, which began only to emerge into a widened musical vernacular in the mid eighteenth century/early classical period. Rosina, the young maiden, here sings her first aria as a traditional stock character typical of opera buffa at the time. The rest of the “Barber” is filled with other such typical characters such as the wily servant, miserly teacher, bungling physician and lovelorn “aristo”. Something, which seems to be a trend in classical opera buffa, at least in Rossini, is the rising of tension without resolve until the end of a movement.In the overture for example, the violins chase each other up and down the musical scale, raising tension and peaking without the complete downwards resolve to the home note that we expect; over and over again this happens until finally we resolve back to the home note and the orchestra ends with a thundering unison note. “Carmen” Scottish Opera – BizetBy 1875, when Carmen premiered, Composer had ditched the rigid forms of their forefathers which they were beginning to find too restrictive to allow them to express themselves. Having emerged from the classical period, we now find ourselves in the midst of the later-called ‘Romantic’ period, which embraced individuality and expression. Indeed composers such as Bizet began to embrace elements of passions and write music concerning love, grief, death and the best and worst excesses of human emotion. Musical boundaries were bro-ken and orchestral forces expanded to allow the music to embody emotion composers had rarely dared to consider. The opera itself, its music and characters embody the individual spirit which characterised the age and the overture is of particular note, filled with the twists and turns of the romantic period. Bizet makes tragedy obvious from the offset through his unconventional prelude, which could loosely be labelled an ‘overture’. It is divided in to three themes and after the second the orchestra finishes on the home key – A major – suggesting he end. However rather than leading straight in to the opera as one would expect, there is a clear and disturbing shift in tonality and instrumentation and we are introduced to the fate motif, which recurs throughout the opera. The overture ends with this, finishing on a dissonant, diminished 7th chord. The disturbing, wantonly sexy music rep-resents Carmen herself and its repetition throughout the opera in unexpected places is representative of Carmen’s carefree freedom, and of the individuality of the age that she herself represents. The sexy expressionism of the period is encapsulated in the famous “Habanera” in act 1 – a Cuban dance form with a typically catchy rhythm in the string section that constitutes the base. This is Carmen’s showpiece, her first aria, engineered to give the audience a sense of her sexy, sultriness and bohemian freedom with the lyrics centring around the idea of love free from the confines of marriage. Using the woodwind like an extra set of voices for double expression, Bizet gears the opera towards an expression of free love, passion liberated from the shackles of social acceptability, where the individual spirit pursues its desires – the romantic era in a nutshell. So what does this mean for us…? Well, as I have frequently said, we, as students would do well to take ad-vantage of the opportunities available to us and fill our lives with as much inspiring, sexy, catchy, innovative music as possible. Gone are the days when opera was made for an elite few highbrow operagoers. The Scottish Opera is offering any seat in any performance for £10 instead of £85 (if you sit in the front of the dress circle) to any-one under 26 and Glyndebourne festival in Sussex (al-though not northern, a true gem nonetheless) offers £30 tickets to the under 30’s instead of some £250+ one might be expected to pay if one is un-fortunate enough to be 31. Go on; grab the opportunities with both hands.

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