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:
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[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’.
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.