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The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.



Cover image of Darkling: A Poem by Anna Rabinowitz (2001, Tupelo Press)
30 Mar 2006

Darkling by American Opera Projects

The East Thirteenth Street Theatre is so unprepossessing that it would be easy to miss it altogether. From the street the entrance looks like an ice cream shop more so than a theatre. The crowded foyer has chairs around little tables and a food service counter.

Behind this façade and through sets of double doors is a dark, intimate theatre with seating on three sides of an open performance area. The stage, which is really just the space in the center of the room, is completely surrounded by translucent screens onto which Hardy’s poem is projected. In this dim, almost secret space, American Opera Projects, Inc. is doing great things. Recently at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre AOP presented Darkling, a new opera that is so multi-layered it defies description.

Anna Rabinowitz’s response to coming into possession of some family letters and postcards dating from the Holocaust was to write the long poem Darkling (2001). Rabinowitz used Thomas Hardy’s poem of 1 January 1900 “The Darkling Thrush” to guide her in the writing of her own poem—specifically, Rabinowitz’s Darkling is a loose acrostic based on Hardy’s poem. In addition to the acrostic, the Hardy poem also inspired the somber mood of Darkling, as well as its moments of brightness.

Director Michael Comlish adapted Darkling to the opera stage, creating a new, multi-media work based completely on Rabinowitz’s poem. At an after-performance Q and A panel with the creators of Darkling, Comlish emphasized that every word was Rabinowitz’s including the aria-like sections, the words spoken by the actor-singers, the texts projected onto the walls of the theatre, and the texts performed on the taped “soundscape.” Through these media, nearly all the lines of the poem Darkling were expressed somewhere in the opera. Comlish worked closely with composer Stefan Weisman and a host of designers to realize his vision for this multi-media event.

Weisman looked to the setting of Hardy’s poem by Lee Hoiby, a song that has been popularized by such luminaries as Leontyne Price and Jean Stapleton. The entire work was concluded with a straightforward performance the Hoiby setting, allowing the audience to access both the musical and poetic works that inspired the various creators of Darkling.

The thirteen performers of Darkling had the difficult task of capturing the audience’s imaginations and hearts without the safeguard of a plot, and they succeed in this admirably. Neither the poem nor the opera has clear narrative thread; rather, according to Rabinowitz, the fragmented nature of the opera reflects the fragmented nature of her poem, which in turn points toward the history told by the letters, postcards, photos, and other documents from her family’s experiences in the Holocaust. The opera, like the letters, allows us to glimpse a small piece of history—the histories of particular individuals and of a war.

In 80 minutes of intense visual and aural stimulation, Darkling achieves moments of powerful emotion. At times I felt moved to tears, though I cannot quite explain all the details that contributed to that because so much was happening simultaneously.

A postcard advertising Darkling features a line from Rabinowitz’s poem, asking “who will acknowledge things of darkness as their own?” Indeed, the work places the onus of understanding and acknowledging on the audience. Through lighting, projection, stage effects, and choreography, the creators of Darkling make the audience a part of the performance, demanding one’s attention at all times.

At the Q and A session, one of the creators on the panel mentioned that Darkling makes abstract ideas and music accessible, to which an audience member replied, and I paraphrase, ‘not really.’ I don’t think this gentleman was criticizing the opera—indeed, it seemed that everyone who stayed to hear the panel really enjoyed it—I think that he was pointing out that the unfamiliarity of the form of the work was disconcerting or disorienting. I suspect that this disorientation was planned all along because by not presenting the story in a linear fashion or filling in any pragmatic details, Darkling requires the listener to engage in some contemplation. The listener gets out of the opera what she or he put into engaging with the material.

There is an optimistic message to be found Darkling. Rabinowitz pointed out at the Q and A that in the Hardy poem the darkling thrush of the title chooses to sing despite the bleakness all around. In Darkling, the Jewish couple whose fate we are following survives the Holocaust almost by accident when they come to America. There is gloom all around them in the form of their loveless marriage and poverty in the United States, but I sense that in a way, this very production is possible only because they struggled on.

Clearly, this is only one reading of an intensely complicated work of art. Bravo to AOP for supporting such controversial and ultimately important work, and to the creative minds that fitted it all together in a thought-provoking way.

Megan Jenkins
The Graduate Center – CUNY

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