25 May 2007
Virginia Arts Festival celebrates “Pocahontas”
Norfork - It’s America’s biggest birthday since the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence:
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Norfork - It’s America’s biggest birthday since the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence:
the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World. And to commemorate the landing of those 104 adventurous Englishman the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia Opera co-commissioned “Pocahontas,” a tribute to the young Native American woman who charmed the new arrivals. The favorite daughter of Algonquian chief Powhatan, she learned English, converted to Christianity, married Virginia colonist John Rolfe and gave birth to a son, whom both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee claimed as an ancestor. Renamed Rebecca by a clergyman who saw her as the mother of two nations, Pocahontas traveled to England, where she was presented at court and, as she prepared to return to Jamestown, died suddenly at 24 in 1817. She is buried at Gravesend, and it is there that the one-act chamber opera by composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne begins.
From there it moves back to Jamestown and the early hostile confrontation between natives and settlers. Pocahontas appears now as an adolescent, a tomboy attractive to both parties and simultaneously as a mature woman respected on both side of the Atlantic. This interplay between the young and mature character is particularly effective in underscoring her role in two cultures.
Beyond the outer facts of her brief life, little is known about the “real” Pocahontas. Contemporary accounts were — in the style of the day — elaborately embellished, and later generations — including the 1995 Disney film — have added undocumented ornamentation. And although Haugen and Thorne obviously did an immense amount of study — including on-site observation of artifacts and landscape, they have made no effort to fill in blanks. Their endeavor focuses not on linear narration, but rather on an evocation of the unusual woman that Pocahontas was. While committed to cultural accuracy, the creative team has sought not to write history, but to explore the mystery of this woman who did much to establish peace between two peoples.
And the mesmerizing quality of Haugen’s score stresses that basic questions about Pocahontas remain open. “I ask myself who I am and I do not know the answer,” she sings. “There will never be an answer; I will always be ... a question.”
Further major players in the story as told by Thorne are Pocahontas’ father and mother, husband Rolfe and John Smith, head honcho of the Jamestown adventure.
Acclaimed a success by the enthusiastic audience that packed Norfork’s Roper Performing Arts Center for the world premiere on May 19, “Pocahontas” is an opera like no other. It is a pastiche that combines song and extensive spoken dialogue in a superbly crafted score. Haugen, noted for her use of ethnic voices and instruments in previous works, went to the tribes still resident in East for motifs that she has woven into the work, the instrumentation of which calls for specially crafted Native American flutes, drums and shakers. Haugen further includes a hymn tune from Thomas Commuck’s 1845 “Indian Melodies” and — to suggest the flavor of the Elizabethan age — bits of Byrd, Gabrielli and Orlando.
With a voice decidedly her own the composer has combined all this in a 90-minute seamless score for nine instrumentalists seated on stage behind the small, near-empty space upon which the story plays. “Pocahontas” is engaging and accessible without being pabulum for the people. The music is beautiful and often powerful; Rolfe’s wooing of the heroine and her death scene elevate this enigmatic woman into the company of Violetta and Mimi. (Although they add local color, the three Native American songs delivered by a vocal/drum duo from the Haliwa-Soponi and Appomattox Tribes stand outside the score and contribute little to the story.)
Virginia Opera assembled a superb cast of young singers for this production, slated also for performance in historic Williamsburg. Sopranos Laura Choi Stuart and Dawn Zahralban were superbly matched as the mature and youthful heroine, and bass Branch Fields sang Rolfe with resonant richness. Lyric tenor Brandon Wood was a handsome and sometimes roughish Smith, and Andrew Fernando a major presence as Powhatan.
Pam Berlin directed the staging with a firm hand; Marlene Pauley conducted with authority. Choreographer Todd Rosenlieb wisely opted for stylized dance, eschewing the pow-wow that others might have found essential. Costumes by designer Michael Schweikardt were true to the period; on her first appearance Pocahontas was dressed as in the painting by Simon de Passe, her sole surviving visual image.
In making the commission Robert Cross, founding director of the Virginia Arts Festival, specified that “Pocahontas” was to be not “a kiddie opera,” but rather a “family-friendly work to which parents would enjoy taking their children.” And the reaction of the opening-night audience, among which were many kids, suggested that he got what he ordered.
Pocahontas is famous beyond her native region, and this opera deserves stagings elsewhere. Because of its modest dimensions, however, it will not have the appeal of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” or Jake Heggie’s “End of the Affair,” two recent and widely performed chamber operas. “Pocahontas,” however, is nicely suited for academic opera programs and for studio production by major companies. Haugen’s music is wonderfully singable and ideal for voices still in the development stage.
Festival performances of the opera profited, of course, from the “you-are-there”proximity of the historical triangle Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, magnificently developed sites with an abundance of authentic documentation intelligently and tastefully displayed. Patriotism has become a discomforting concept of late; a visit to this region from which America grew is reassuring.
Footnote: Aside from its obvious roots in Jamestown “Pocahontas” is something of a Minnesota Opera. Composer Haugen holds degrees from St. Olaf and the University, where she studied with Dominic Argento. Librettist Vail has worked closely with St. Paul-based composer Stephen Paulus, and conductor Pauley, also a St. Olaf alumna, is a clarinetist in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which she conducts regularly.