11 Nov 2006
Triumph over Adversity
LONDON – the fledgling Independent Opera Company takes on Orlando.
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
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.