11 Nov 2006
Triumph over Adversity
LONDON – the fledgling Independent Opera Company takes on Orlando.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
LONDON – the fledgling Independent Opera Company takes on Orlando.
Even in Handel’s own time, Orlando wasn’t a hit. Three years ago the Royal Opera House mounted a big budget production of Orlando. Despite the big name singers, the elaborate revolving scenery and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, it was not an artistic triumph. What chance is there then for the tiny Independent Opera Company? This is a fledgling organisation, run on a shoestring. Orlando is only their second production. It would be totally unfair to expect them to pull off a miracle which has eluded so many, up to and including the Royal Opera House.
The real problem with this opera is that modern audiences find it hard to sit through three hours of repetitive recitative, and a plot that defies logic. What impressed me is how the company turned the difficulties facing them around. In the process, they thought the opera through. They approach the opera on Handel’s own terms. Alessandro Talevi, the Artistic Director, has enough faith in the merit of the opera that he can dispense with fancy props and let its inherent ideas shine through.
The whole point of Orlando is “triumph over adversity”. Orlando was a hero in the past but is now beset by problems he can’t comprehend. The opera begins with the usual conventions of love and false love, but from that point everything unravels. Misunderstandings and mishaps pile up relentlessly. This production takes the very deviousness of the plot as a starting point : its focus is the anarchy of fate, not the solution. Suddenly, Handel seems surprisingly relevant to our times.
The seats in the cramped Lilian Baylis Theatre rise steeply upwards, barely a yard from the platform edge, and the stage itself is impossibly narrow. To increase performing space, a tilted ellipse was built on the main platform, with a pit in the middle. Obviously, it would have seemed less claustrophobic in a more spacious theatre, but the ellipse had practical benefits. It created a four dimensional effect with an illusion of foreground and background. Moreover the hollow gave the cast cover so they could disappear, move and pop up again at will. It also meant that the orchestra, (conducted by Gary Cooper), could be accommodated literally in the heart of the action. Seeing them as well as hearing them enhanced the sense of “circles within circles”.
Ultimately, what made this production was its thoughtful understanding of the dynamics of character. William Towers’ dark timbres portray Orlando as an action man more prone to mindless violence than to thinking, but by Act Two, he convincingly turns the violence inwards. Even the ties that bind his costume unravel as he descends into madness. Tower has natural stage presence and has sung Medoro and Farnace at Covent Garden. Rebecca Ryan’s extensive experience showed in the aplomb with which she created the demanding role of Angelika. Joana Seara, a recent Guildhall graduate, was a charming Dorinda, tending her garden and pet nightingale. Christopher Ainslie was a golden Medoro vocally and visually. Nicolas Warden’s Zoroastro had authoritative presence. In this spare, minimalist production, lighting propels the narrative where scenery might do so otherwise. Shadow puppets and silhouettes make much more mysterious monsters. Zoroastro gets some wonderful moments, such as when he raises his hand and the lighting creates a pattern of words, rising up to fill the stage in synch with his arms. When he calls on the heavens, suddenly the stage is lit up by a projection of the earth seen from space. It’s a cosmic moment, with timeless, magical resonance.
It is imaginative details like this which show that there’s genuine talent in small companies like Independent Opera. There’s no way they can, or should be expected to perform at the level of major houses. Nonetheless, they should be nurtured, supported and cherished. Channel their enthusiasm wisely, and it could benefit all opera in the long term.