15 Oct 2007
Philip Glass celebrates 70th with compelling new opera
SAN FRANCISCO — “My subject is war and the pity of war, and the poetry is in the pity.”
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 FRANCISCO — “My subject is war and the pity of war, and the poetry is in the pity.”
Philip Glass might well have prefaced his new opera “Appomattox” with Wilfred Owen’s words that Benjamin Britten chose to introduce his War Requiem in 1962. For although “Appomattox,” given its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera here on October 5, is in no way a pacifist pamphlet, it reaffirms the commitment to peace and to non-violence that Glass first expressed in his Ghandi opera “Satyagraha” three decades ago. Happily, however, there is nothing tendentious about “Appomattox,” an extended account of the 1865 meeting between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that seemingly ended the Civil War.
Seemingly — for here the concern of Glass and his librettist, British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, looks beyond Lee’s surrender of his army at Appomattox Court House to underscore the wounds of that war that remain unhealed today, 150 years after the meeting of the two generals. Glass counterpoints this historic event with the massacre of black militia by Louisiana racists in 1873, the murder of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Troopers in 1965 and the hate-filled words of Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan member convicted only in 2005 for his role involved in the slaughter of a trio of civil rights workers 40 years earlier. (Glass’ ballad for Jackson — the composer calls it “a Bob Dylan song” — will undoubtedly have a life of its own beyond the opera.) “War is always sorrowful. Never has so much blood been drained. Let this be the last time,” sing the women who open — and later close - “Appomattox.”
And Grant and Lee, portrayed here as men of dignity, moral stature and generous spirit, are determined that the conflict that took over 600,000 lives should be the last war. “How we end the war today will still be felt a hundred years from now,” Grant says, while Glass’ music makes the general’s words unmistakably ominous. Grant is sung by bass Andrew Shore, Lee by bass baritone Dwayne Croft and Lincoln by bass Jeremy Galyon, low voices all that underscore the sorrow of the tale as Glass tells it. Indeed, it was the failure of that dream that accounts for the dark undertow of the new opera, for the optimism that Ghandi’s non-violence once inspired in Glass is no longer present here.
In this ahistoric age Grant and Lee are little more than cardboard cutouts on the distant horizon of fourth-grade history. Glass, however, brings them to life as men of character and intellect and it is this that gives “Appomattox” its aura of human warmth. Grant, although unkempt, scruffy and fresh from battle, is not the bumpkin as which he is often portrayed, and Lee is every inch a Southern gentleman and aristocrat. (The scene, in which Lee is dressed on stage for the crucial meeting, recalls Don Giovanni’s preparation for the “Champagne” aria.) The respect of the two men for each other — and their shared concern for their mission — is genuine. And their wives, along with Lee’s daughter Agnes, Mrs. Lincoln and her soothsaying seamstress, are late descendants of Euripides’ Trojan women after the sack of their city, for they sense the ominous side of the “peace” about to be concluded. It is they who see the inhuman dimension of the war and lament its consequences.
All five women are impressively sung by SFO Adler fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Elza van den Heever, Ji Young Yang, Heidi Melton and Kendall Gladen. Impressive also is the ability that Glass has now developed to make words fully comprehensible — even without resorting to the titles now traditional everywhere. “The tessitura, or placement of the voice, will determine a lot about comprehensibility,” the composer says. “For example, in English the final consonants often indicate the meaning of a vowel. So if you go very high with the voice it becomes difficult to understand the words. “What you’re looking for is a style of singing that is melodic but stays well within the range of spoken voice.”
One thing most will learn from the opera is that Appomattox Court House is not the seat of local government that the name commonly implies, but rather an entire small town, in which the generals met in the living room of Wilmer McLean. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has recreated this modest room — complete with period furniture — for the second act of “Appomattox.” Overall, however, Hernandez’ finest work is the curtain of glass and steel that the audience sees upon entering the War Memorial Opera House for this production. It is — literally — a cutting-edge expression of the nature of war. On the other hand, for the destruction of Richmond he takes his cues from Cecil B. DeMille and detracts from Glass’ score with realistic artillery and fireworks.
“Appomattox” is in a sense Glass own celebration of his 70th birthday, which took place in January. And in a superbly informative interview with his team in the SFO program book, he makes note of the distance he has traveled since the 1989 production of “Satyagraha” here. “It was the very night of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in China,” he recalls. “And I’ve moved away from the optimism you see in my early works.” He states that the world has become a threatening place and laments that such statesmen as Grant and Lee have been replaced today by mere politicians. And Grass’ style has changed markedly from the repetitive patterns of his nascent minimalism.
“Appomattox” is at times richly melodic, and orchestral interludes - such as the music that marks the destruction of Richmond — is highly dramatic in its descriptive force. This is not to say that this is a perfect work; the chorus of black Union soldiers, for example, should be shortened. To dwell on shortcomings, however, is to overlook the grand achievement of “Appomattox” and to fail to be moved by its absolute integrity and the intensity of its message.
The Union Army’s XXV Corps
Philip Glass has been his own man since the beginning, and his concern for the war between the States dates back to “CIVIL warS,”, his collaboration with Robert Wilson for 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. To measure him by the ruler defined by Mozart ignores the originality of a man who has contributed to every known genre and — in his collaborations with poet Allen Ginsberg and his operas built upon Jean Cocteau films, to mention only two examples — he has created some of his own. And, as librettist Woodruff observes, in “Appomattox” Glass has dealt meaningfully with a chapter in history that “still sits in the middle of the psyche of the American people in an iconic way; the resonance between that moment in history and the succeeding moments of violence and violation of that pact.”
Originally a commission for the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley brought “Appomattox” with him when he became general director of the San Francisco Opera in 2006. It is thus his first SFO commission. Although there are at present no plans for staging “Appomattox” elsewhere, the work seems destined for great popularity. Indeed, it seems safe to say that with the new work Philip Glass has created an operatic companion piece to “Gone with the Wind.”