28 Oct 2007
The Coronation of Poppea — English National Opera
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
Having collaborated in the past with choreographers including Mark Morris, the company is now two thirds of the way through a Monteverdi opera cycle in collaboration with Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng, the Orange Blossom Dance Company from Indonesia, and the early-music specialist conductor Laurence Cummings. A precedent was set by the opening opera of the cycle in spring 2005 — an Orfeo of spectacularly hypnotic, fluid beauty.
The company début of rising British singer Kate Royal as Poppea was an additional selling point for this second opera in the cycle. She's a glamorous singer, with a polished sultriness in her low-lying soprano, but the stage directions prevented her from painting a convincing character portrait; she spent much of the first act perched high on the deck of Nerone’s luxury yacht (yes, there was a surreal marine theme to the production, with much of the action apparently taking place underwater) which made her untouchable and aloof. Projected images on the backdrop reinforced this idea; she was an icon, virtually a graven image to be worshipped. Despite Royal’s natural poise and elegance, there was little sense of Poppea’s earthy sexiness nor of her calculating ambition.
Lucy Crowe (Drusilla) and Robert Lloyd (Seneca) had an easier time of it, and managed to make something believable of their roles; Christopher Gillett’s Arnalta looked (intentionally) ridiculous but sang very beautifully at times.
Otherwise, the cast was a bit weak and underpowered. It is, perhaps, unfair to blame the singers for this; Monteverdi operas were not designed for a space the size of the Coliseum. Tim Mead's Ottone started off with that slightly yelpy sound which countertenors get when they over-project (though he sorted this out by the second half). Anna Grevelius, as Nerone, sang very sweetly but didn't project any masculinity either vocally or physically - certainly not enough to convince as an egomaniacal ruler. Doreen Curran’s Ottavia had considerable vocal presence, but her characterisation wasn’t aided by the fact that the director had her languishing on top of what looked like a large white pumpkin at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, the costumes and props seemed incidental to the opera, and at times even a hindrance. Sometimes it was more like a fashion show, with wacky structured haute-couture costumes which made me wonder whether we'd accidentally strayed into the Zandra Rhodes-designed Aida a few weeks early.
Katherine Manley (Fortune) / Sophie Bevan (Love) / Jane Harrington (Virtue) and Orange Blossom Dance Co
The Indonesian dance troupe were usually incidental to — indeed, often distracting from — the action rather than providing the unifying, mesmerising presence they supplied to last year’s wonderful Orfeo. The production did have moments of real beauty - like the dancers in the dragonfly costumes rising slowly into the air during "Pur ti miro". And there was great beauty in the music — is it even possible not to make this score beautiful? Laurence Cummings really understands Monteverdian line and seemed to have taken considerable trouble to share this with the cast.
But compared with Orfeo, with its sense of "flow" and constantly visually-arresting use of colour and movement, this Poppea staging was scrappy and disappointing. In truth, the biggest problems were the failure to communicate the humanity of the characters, and the fundamental sense of division between the musical performance and the visual spectacle. Chen Shi-Zheng has shown himself to be yet another director who allows his personal vision for a production to take priority over the work being performed. ENO still has him lined up to direct Il ritorno d’Ulisse and I really hope he engages more with that than he seems to have done with Poppea.
Ruth Elleson © 2007