Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
26 Sep 2007
Margaret Garner at NYCO
The New York City Opera’s production of Richard Danielpour’s and Toni Morrison’s opera, Margaret Garner, boldly faces the ugly history of slavery in the United States, and the racism inherent in the institution of opera.
It is difficult to criticize a work that is so optimistic in its
scope, and indeed, one that is the collaborative effort of two giants in
their fields such as Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison are. And yet,
despite the ovations from the audience (especially for Morrison), despite the
excitement generated by opening night at the City Opera, the opera felt a
little flat. This is in part attributable to the one-dimensional nature of
the characters in Margaret Garner: without exception they are either
wholly good or wholly evil. Librettist Morrison and composer Danielpour fell
into a trap of creating Margaret and her husband Robert as something like
Margaret Garner attempts to address the historical figure of
Margaret Garner in a dignified and meaningful way—as is only to be expected
of Nobel Prize-winning Morrison. However, Danielpour, not unlike Puccini,
uses musical references in irrelevant and anachronistic ways. For example,
during the opera one hears (frequently) references in the orchestra’s music
to jazz and ragtime; and when the black (and black-faced) chorus sings they
evoke gospel music that you might hear pouring out of the Baptist churches in
the South today. He has used familiar sounds to make his audience tap their
feet and he weaves beautiful and jazzy melodies to tug at our heartstrings.
Some critics have referred to Danielpour’s “Leonard-Bernstein-like”
musical style, but his attempts are not as successful as Bernstein’s
dizzying combinations of styles, and the result is that Margaret
Garner is less effective as a dramatic opera than it could be.
Additionally, in his imitation of black American musics, Danielpour has
orientalized Margaret and her family, rather than presenting them in more
complicated musical language, which of course, Danielpour is capable of
composing. Like Madame Butterfly, Margaret and Robert become simplified,
overdrawn characters; they are held up as infallible in their love for one
another and for their children, and they are made into saints and martyrs. By
making Margaret a saint instead of a desperate human, Danielpour and Morrison
do not do justice to the facts of Margaret Garner’s life, which, when
examined on their own shed light on a slice of American history, even without
One problem with creating saints out of real peoples’ lives is that
though we can argue that this Margaret Garner of their creation—kind,
loving, intelligent, and beautiful—did not deserve her fate, the opera does
not make a strong stand about slavery in general. An opera that would truly
look our history of slavery in the eye must protest the enslavement of even
those people who were less virtuous than this Margaret; those who were not
good parents or faithful lovers; those who may have been somehow complicit
with the system of slavery in which they were raised. The house slave who may
have enjoyed her status or the transplanted husband who was not faithful
cannot measure up to the standard set by this martyred Margaret Garner. To be
truly “anti-slavery” we must recognize that even slaves who stole, who
abused the little power they had, who abandoned their lovers, or who were in
other ways unable to measure up to Danielpour and Morrison’s standard were
deserving of basic human rights of freedom and self-determination.
In another, more practical way, Margaret Garner strikes a blow
against the institutional racism that plagues opera houses. We need only look
at the hiring practices of the Metropolitan Opera (or the New York City Opera
or any other major US or European opera house) to see that while men and
women of color are often hired to sing roles designated as characters that
are black, Hispanic or Asian, they are rarely hired to perform roles that are
understood to be white characters; and furthermore, that white people are
sometimes hired to sing roles that are designated as black, Hispanic, or
Asian characters (think, for example on the famous singers who perform
Otello, Monostatos, Madame Butterfly). For more thoughtful writing on hiring
practices of the Met, see Wallace Cheatham’s article “Black Male Singers
at the Metropolitan Opera” in The Black Perspective in Music 16/1
(Spring 1988): 3 – 20; which is almost as relevant today as it was twenty
years ago. (Over his career Cheatham has also written about black women
singers in opera.) Margaret Garner, in its subject matter and casting,
perforce must address some of these issues. Three of the four NYCO debut
artists in this cast are not white. In choosing to have both black and white
characters in this opera about America’s history with slavery, it seems
that Danielpour and Morrison have created new roles for black singers, roles
that may help these singers further the careers of the artists who perform
them, if they can avoid being typecast.
Tracie Luck thrilled the audience at the NYCO premiere of Margaret
Garner, not only with her acting skills, but also with her beautiful
voice and some surprising low notes. Other newcomers Lisa Daltrius as Cilla
and and Gregg Baker as Robert Garner were also very talented and warmly
received. Another notable performance was given by Maureen McKay who seemed
to embody the perky and radical Caroline Gaines, daughter of the slave owner
Edward Gaines (performed by NYCO debut artist Timothy Mix).
The set designed by Donald Eastman was functional; it did not distract
from the action on the stage. This production offers the director the
difficulty of having to stage five deaths—two of which are hangings. The
first murder—that of the villainous overseer played by Joel Sorensen by
Robert Garner—involved some very convincing stage acting by the two
performers. Neither the hanging of Robert Garner or of Margaret Garner was
pulled off very well. The scene that should have been at the heart of the
opera—the one in which Margaret stabs her own children to death was
convincingly acted, but musically and otherwise undramatic. Any of the angst
that the real Margaret must have felt was glossed over briefly in one of the
shortest scenes of the opera.
Although this opera was disappointing, one cannot help but feel it is in
part because Margaret Garner is bearing so much social
responsibility on its own. Few other operas tackle such huge and relevant
issues. Perhaps if this opera were not one of so few that address race
relations in the United States, then we as audience members would not have to
scrutinize the message or the presentation so closely. If this were one of
many approaches to healing the wounds that slavery has left in our country,
then Margaret Garner would not have such a heavy burden to bear.
Megan Jenkins © 2007