11 Nov 2006
Triumph over Adversity
LONDON – the fledgling Independent Opera Company takes on Orlando.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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.