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Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

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).



Chief Standing Bear c. 1877
13 Mar 2007

Native-American Drama at Opera Omaha

Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.

Rossini, employing the formulae of his day, could dash off a new work in a week or two; the collective responsible for “Wakonda” - composer Andrew Davis, librettist Yusef Komunyakaa, director Rhoda Levine and OC general director Joan Desens - began their brain storming in 2002. “Wakonda” was five years in the making.

Originally focused on the 1879 trial of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, the story changed into a “meditation” - to use Davis’ designation - on the court decision that first recognized the rights of Native Americans. (They were not granted citizenship until 1948.) In its many meetings the collective decided upon a family drama set in the present, heavy with the dreams - and nightmares - faced still today by Native Americans.

Standing Bear - now positioned among the chorus at stage rear - has become a reference point for two generations intent upon keeping “their feet on the path” while finding “a place beyond shame and sorrow.” And although Louisiana-born Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer prize winner noted for his writing on the Vietnam war and now a professor at Princeton, feels that he delivered a “straightforward narrative,” he also wanted to tell a story that goes “beyond history.”

A plethora of problems has found its way into the opera: the kids- even Native-American kids - playing “Cowboys and Indians” all want to be Cowboys, and there’s discrimination and alcoholism. Budding romance between a young Indian and white girl Laura leads an irate father to threaten violence. It’s more than can be handled comfortably in a two-hour work, and thus it’s not surprising that “Wakonda’s Dream” ends a bit up in the air. Davis and his colleagues might have done better to keep the focus on the trial that made Standing Bear a legend.

Davis’ creative concern with racism brought him early fame with his widely praised “Malcolm X” (1986) and “Amistad” (1997). Yet one understands his hesitation to compose yet another trial after the courtroom scene at the center of “Amistad.” The changed plot stresses the continuing dilemma of Native Americans, for whom “the past is one long death march to nowhere.”

Blue-collar Justin Labelle (Eugene Perry) dreams of a better life for his son Jason (William Ferguson). But in an alcoholic haze, confused by the spirit of the trickster Coyote, the father shoots - and kills - his son. It’s a tragic tale, and on the heels of this murder the consolation of the finale - even with the American Indian Dance Theater on stage for the ceremonial dance that returns Justin to his tribe - seems a facile resolution of the many problems involved.

Davis is a gifted craftsman and has done is utmost to tailor a score suited to the subject matter at hand. Indeed, in the first act he has perhaps gone too far in giving primacy to words over music, for here he largely restricts himself to the illustration of narrative. One anticipates - but waits in vain - for an outburst of melody in an aria or duet.

The score is more engaging in the conflicts and confrontations of the second act - especially in the meeting between Jason and Standing Bear that is at the heart of the story. Davis has written music of particular strength and beauty for the chorus that sits with immobile dignity in an arc at the back of the stage throughout the opera.

He faced a major challenge in writing a score “that lets the audience in,” that brings emotional weight to the experience of the story by causing the listener to identify with the characters on stage. The opera opens with a “soundscape,” recorded sounds of Nebraska nature that fill the Orpheum before giving way to instrumental voices. Davis weaves jazz and folk motifs, along with Native-American hip-hop, into a score that keeps the listener alert. And Opera Omaha has assembled a strong cast for the staging. In addition to Perry and Ferguson and Ricker, Phyllis Pancella is a lovingly concerned wife and mother, while Arnold Rawls portrays a regal Standing Bear. Kids Lilly Nunn and Jonah Davis excel as central figures in childhood.

Peter Harrison designed a single set that evokes an inner landscape of desolation. Costumes were by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Steward Robertson conducted an enlarged chamber ensemble drawn from the Omaha Symphony.

Opera Omaha made the work the center piece of a month-long festival of outreach events designed to provide the community with background on this chapter of early Nebraska history. This, in turn, no doubt accounted in part for the many Native Americans in the opening-night audience.

“Wakonda’s Dream” joins such earlier operatic “meditations” on the fate of America’s natives David Carlson’s “Dreamkeepers” (Utah Opera, 1996) and Henry Mollicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City Lyric Opera, 1998) as an admirable endeavor to focus attention on a dreadful heritage. Whether it moves beyond Omaha remains to be seen. Before the March 7 premiere Rufus White, a spiritual leader of the Omaha Nation, blessed the cast of the production.

Wes Blomster

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